Asheville-based National Climate Data Center turns 60

People have observed and recorded the weather for millennia in the United States. Native American petroglyphs often depicted rain, the sun, or lightning. Much later, European colonists recorded journal entries about the weather and the natural environment they encountered. By the late 1700s, accurate weather instruments such as thermometers were routinely used by professional and amateur scientists. Historical figures, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recorded daily weather conditions.

For the next two centuries, a vast body of weather observations accumulated in archives scattered across the country. In 1951, the federal government consolidated all its weather records in Asheville, where the archives at the U.S. Weather Bureau, Air Force, and Navy combined to form the National Weather Records Center.

By that time, the Federal Government possessed one of the largest buildings in the south, the Grove Arcade. It was considered a desirable location to house millions of paper weather observations and a rapidly expanding database of computer punch cards (yes, back in the days when computers were the size of a refrigerator, data entry was done with paper punch cards). Asheville was relatively isolated and inland, offering protection from foreign enemy attack and from hurricanes, two threats that were more likely to impact coastal locations.

In 1970, the NWRC changed its name and became the National Climatic Center. Twelve years later, the organization was renamed the National Climatic Data Center. Through the years, as the center evolved, its holdings expanded as well. Data observations now cover the whole Earth and come from land-based stations, ships and ocean buoys, satellites, radar, balloons and other upper-air instruments.

Sixty-five years later, though, the types of data have changed, and the technology used to store the data is different. Originally, everything was on paper (you can see hand-written notes made by Benjamin Franklin the archives). Punch cards came later, then microfilm and microfiche. After film and tape, data storage transitioned to computer discs, and then finally to the computer servers we use today.

Currently, the NCDC receives data electronically via the Internet or through satellite transmissions, but there are still tens of millions of sheets of paper stored in the basement archives. Center staff are working to digitize the paper data place it online for public use.

Center officials say there are myriad users of its data. Many business and government sectors — from agriculture to air quality, construction to city planning, insurance to energy, tourism to transportation, national security to natural resource planning — are making decisions based on the latest available climate information — especially now, as academic and government scientists analyze and attempt to project weather and related events in a time of climate change.

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