ASHEVILLE — Decades after the Grove Arcade, once known as the Federal Building, was selected to stockpile mounds of weather records, interest in Asheville’s trove of climate data is having a revival, spurring a potentially promising industry just a few blocks away.
The Collider, a nonprofit organization focused on the commercialization of climate data — celebrated its
opening March 11 on the top floor of the Wells Fargo building overlooking Pritchard Park in downtown Asheville.
A venture that may help bring to the mountains a share of the estimated $1 trillion industry centered on climate change innovation and resilience.
“The timing could not be better to have the Collider create a space for collaboration,” said Tim Owen, the chief of the information services division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate in Asheville.
Owen said his agency is responsible for overseeing a massive aggregation of oceanic, geophysical, coastal and atmospheric data. They also, he said, have the duty to share it.
“It is a public good,” Owen said. “We have the obligation that our archives are made available. In the last few years we’ve had an explosion in the applicability of our data to solve climate related problems.”
The responsibility to collect and organize weather data landed in Asheville in 1943 when the federal government purchased the Gothic structure to house the U.S. General Accounting Office’s Postal Accounts Division.
By 1951 Asheville became the headquarters of the National Weather Records Center.
And in January 2015, following several changes in scope and name, the agency was reorganized as the hub of the National Centers for Environmental Information.
The NCEI’s collection, which is the world’s largest archive of climate and weather data includes more than 20 petabytes of data and one of the reasons the Collider chose Asheville.
The concept behind the enterprise is to help businesses and organizations commercialize climate data to develop products and services related to the impact of climate change.
Not only is the access to data a draw, but Collider CEO Bill Dean said the quality of life in Asheville will play a central role in attracting creative and accomplished climate scientists and entrepreneurs.
Thus far the Collider has partnered with several organizations, including NOAA and has spaced to UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center and the North American headquarters of Acclimatise Group LTD, a London based consulting firm.
The Collider is the brainchild of Mack Pearsall, a North Carolina entrepreneur, philanthropist and environmentalist who became interested in understanding more about rising sea levels a decade ago.
“I got to see more broadly and unmistakably the risk and clear and present danger of climate change,” said Pearsall, who describes the Collider as a public-private partnership to create a platform to develop “products and services to address climate change adaptation.”
Among the attendants of the opening of the Collider was U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx who said the transportation sector of the U.S. accounts for 30 percent of greenhouse emissions.
“A lot of things we are doing in infrastructure … are designed to give us a greater level of resiliency,” said Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte.
That includes allocating $10 billion in the 2017 fiscal year “towards a series of new innovative programs that would accelerate the move towards a smarter, cleaner and more integrated transportation network,” Foxx said.
Not only are automobiles a source of climate change, but the nation’s physical infrastructure — water, energy, and transportation — may bear the brunt of climate change and more extreme weather events.
“We are having to go back and think about different ways to go about infrastructure,” said Foxx who referenced the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which shut down New York City’s subway system for a week in 2012.
Owen of NOAA said a range of sectors in the U.S. economy are vulnerable to climate variability. His agency estimates that industries amounting to on third of the U.S. gross domestic product — or roughly $5 trillion worth of the nation’s economic output — are directly impacted by climate change.
Which is why sharing the mounds of data stored and collected in Asheville is more urgent than ever.
Only in recent years has NOAA has actively pursued sharing its data to outside users, Owen said. NOAA’s approach is a “user inspired” model in which the agency helps make the data accessible and usable to a wide range of users.
Opening of the Collider is coming at the right time, Owen said.
“We’re in position to serve the public in really important ways and having partners only strengthens our ability to do it,” said Owen.
“(The climate industry in Asheville) is at an inflection point and at a place to grow very quickly.”