Mountain Raingers Aid Understanding of Rainfall in Southern Appalachia

Mountain Raingers Aid Understanding of Rainfall in Southern Appalachia

Frances Figart

Students who apply to the University of North Carolina Asheville are often attracted by the region's plethora of hiking trails. Those who end up working as field research assistants with Professor Douglas Miller may find themselves taxed to the limit by the requirement of strenuous hiking in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“During my first hike up to Mount Sterling, we encountered below freezing temperatures,” said Meredith Avison, who will graduate from UNC Asheville's Atmospheric Science program in December. “I was the coldest I have ever been, and I will never forget the relief of hand warmers the other field researcher brought along. Still, it was worth it for the amazing views of frozen rhododendrons up the mountain slope and the eerie silence of the freezing forest.”

Mountain Raingers Carly Narotsky (left) and Meredith Avison (right) survive a freezing day in the field.
Mountain Raingers Carly Narotsky (left) and Meredith Avison (right) survive a freezing day in the field.

Avison, who plans to apply to graduate schools in Germany with meteorology and climatology programs, is one of a long line of Mountain Raingers. And, no, “rainger” is not misspelled. One of Miller’s students, Wes Groetsema, suggested the moniker during a naming contest Miller hosted on social media. It’s a perfect choice because these field researchers study rain.

Miller specializes in atmospheric science—the study of physical processes impacting the atmosphere—and in hydrology—the science of water and how it cycles in its different phases through a region. He came to Asheville from Monterey, California, where he was involved in some post-doctoral work that sparked an interest in rain gauges as tools for understanding the atmosphere and predicting weather events.

For more than a decade, Miller has been collaborating with world-renowned hydrologist Dr. Ana Barros of Duke University on a study involving rain gauges. Barros was the Principal Investigator of a project that started in 2004 when Hurricanes Frances and Ivan resulted in significant flooding and a washout of one of the lanes of Interstate 40 just inside the North Carolina border. The amount of rainfall occurring in the mountains during those events surprised many meteorologists and led to a study by NASA to use satellites to better estimate rainfall in the Smokies region. A rain gauge network—partially located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—was installed as part of this study.

Samuel Peterson calibrates a rain gauge
Samuel Peterson calibrates a rain gauge.

“The goal of the project is two-fold,” said Miller. “First, provide ‘ground truth’ of rainfall in the mountains of the Pigeon River Basin in Haywood County for improving satellite-based rainfall estimates. And secon, improve our understanding of the basic physical processes contributing to precipitation production in the mountains.”

Miller’s system, known as the Duke Great Smoky Mountains Rain Gauge Network (Duke GSMRGN), consists of 32 rain gauges, 12 of which are located inside the park. Samuel Peterson, a senior in the Atmospheric Science program at UNCA, has been involved with the project for several semesters.

“I have now been on more than a few hikes for the project with Dr. Miller,” he said. “They have helped me understand how real-word data can be applied to research projects in multiple ways. We use the GSMRGN data for student research and Duke uses the same data for their large project.”

Back in 2007 and 2008, Dr. Miller and his first Raingers hiked to find clearings for rain gauge locations in a seemingly continuous canopy of trees. On public land, they had to submit an application to install each rain gauge so the national park or forest could verify that they would not be damaging rare vegetation or an historical site. On private property they had to get permission from the landowners, who Miller says have all been incredibly supportive of the project.

“Our rain gauges are located at high elevations—above 3,400 feet—and are supplemented by lower-elevation rain gauges from other organizations and institutions,” said Miller. “Utilizing both sets of observations can create a clearer picture of how rainfall occurs at all elevations of the park.”

During certain special observation periods, Dr. Barros brought extra instrumentation at low-elevation locations to help the researchers understand how higher-level clouds sometimes “seed” lower-level clouds, improving the precipitation efficiency of the lower clouds and resulting in more rainfall. Miller said this is a common occurrence for creating rain in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Miller has documented the Mountain Raingers successes in a chapter included in “America’s Largest Classroom: What We Learn from Our National Parks” (University of California Press). “Students found that they gained an appreciation for making observations in the ‘not-so-friendly’ confines of the complex and steep terrain of the southern Appalachian Mountains,” Miller wrote. “The rapid weather fluctuations forced them to make wise real-time decisions about adjusting the plan-of-the-day.”

Peterson will be graduating in spring of 2022 and hopes to pursue work with satellites and remote sensing, possibly at the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville or the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. He says he has enjoyed learning practical hands-on skills like calibration and maintenance of equipment and the handling and organization of data.

“You learn about this in class but following through with it in a real project—and all the hiccups that entails—gives you a better preparation for these situations in a professional setting.”

Related Posts
  1. “When the Gales of November Came Slashin’*” The hurricane-force mountain wave winds that annually torment residents living in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and which contributed greatly to the deadly wildfires in late November 2016 are probably as old as the mountains themselves.
  2. Studies Offer Insights into Behaviors of Park Bears Studies Offer Insights into Behaviors of Park Bears By Steve Kemp Four research projects focused on bears in the Great Smoky Mountains are currently underway or have recently been completed. Of the four, the results of two are troubling, one is encouraging, and on the last, it’s too early to te
  3. The Smokies in Your Backyard: Crested Dwarf Iris, Foam Flower, and Columbine The Smokies in Your Backyard: Crested Dwarf Iris, Foam Flower, and Columbine