The Collider

NEMAC finds a home at the intersection of information and innovation, connecting climate research to the city.
Jim Fox points out the new space to UNC Asheville senior Sarah Gibson, who is a writer for NEMAC.

UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) has a new location, both in the heart of Asheville’s hub of climate and weather agencies and on the edge of the next wave of data innovation. At the core of NEMAC’s mission is access to a vast quantity of digital climate and weather information gathered by the federal government’s chief climate agency, headquartered in Asheville’s downtown federal building complex. But NEMAC’s competitive advantage in a growing industry built around climate data is their proximity to experts.

A distance, in fact, that can be measured in footsteps. In March 2016, NEMAC moved into a new downtown office space and joined a contingent of enterprises focused on the commercialization of climate data at The Collider—a nonprofit venture that provides physical space for innovation and collaboration around products and services dedicated to adapting to climate change.

“I tell people the real power of NEMAC is the synergy between our skill sets. Climate data by itself is not useful; it’s the people with the expertise to discover what the data means and the ability to visualize it so people can understand it,” said Jim Fox, NEMAC’s director since 2005.  

Fox was among more than 200 people on hand for the grand opening of The Collider on the top floor of the Wells Fargo building, overlooking Pritchard Park in downtown Asheville. The venture may bring to the mountains a share of the estimated $1 trillion industry centered on climate change innovation and resilience, which NEMAC will play a crucial role.

“I think we’re right on the cusp of a growth spurt in this industry. People are beginning to understand the probability of really large losses due to the climate changing.” —Jim Fox

Innovation in the Making

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 sector partnership to create a platform to develop “products and services to address climate change adaptation.”

The space opened on his birthday.

“The timing could not be better to have The Collider create a space for collaboration,” said Tim Owen, chief of the Information Services Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Center for Weather and Climate in Asheville. NOAA’s collection is the world’s largest archive of climate and weather data and includes more than 20 petabytes of data. It’s also one of the reasons The Collider chose Asheville.

Among NEMAC’s fellow tenants at The Collider are Acclimatise, one of Europe’s leading climate services companies, and FernLeaf Interactive, a homegrown business launched by UNC Asheville alumnus and former NEMAC intern Jeff Hicks ’08.

Expertise For Public and Private Ventures

A Roxboro, N.C. native, Hicks was drawn to UNC Asheville to follow a path in electronic music, but eventually steered his studies towards biological sciences and landed in a geographic information systems (GIS) course.

He was hooked.

“For me GIS was the perfect intersection of technology and the environment,” said Hicks.

His technical skill set was a useful match for NEMAC’s internship program, and in 2006 Hicks was crunching data on a wide range of projects. After graduating in 2008 

Hicks stayed on and eventually launched a new venture to capitalize on skills gathered on the job with NEMAC.

Among the projects to which Hicks contributed was programming for the White House’s U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, developed by NEMAC in partnership with NOAA. The web-based product helps communities, businesses, and governments visualize and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

While Fox says that NEMAC’s client base has been predominantly funded by public agencies, both Fox and Hicks recognized a niche applying data-crunching skills to private industry. 

“Ultimately we’re doing the work for people who need to make decisions with a huge amount of uncertainty,” said Hicks, who credits his liberal arts studies as crucial training in his ability to communicate complex ideas to people with a range of backgrounds. 

Kim Rhodes, an environmental studies major and a current intern at NEMAC, agrees and said that being able to help people visualize how they may be impacted by climate change and other environmental threats is a valuable skill she credits to UNC Asheville and her experience at NEMAC.

“It’s amazing how well my classes have clicked, and it’s been interesting to see just how far my studies can reach by demonstrating and verbalizing the ways people’s lives will be impacted by environmental threats,” she said.  

Impact on Agencies and Individuals

While NEMAC continues to work on meaningful projects with state and federal government agencies, Fox said the group he leads is on the radar of the commercial sector which will likely play a bigger role in their business model as funds from state and federal governments dwindle.

And that’s just it: The Collider is a space to help match the range of skills and expertise to develop a fledgling industry around climate resilience—the ability to respond and adapt to climate change. NEMAC is the cornerstone.

“They are a key driver in bringing the public and private sector together and providing an academic culture to understand and provide solutions to global climate challenges,” said Collider CEO Bill Dean.

“I think we’re right on the cusp of a growth spurt in this industry. People are beginning to understand the probability of really large losses due to the climate changing,” Fox said. “That’s the story all over: people are starting to see pressures on what they once saw as normal. There is a marked increase in science and technical jobs here in Asheville. At the end of every day I go home and feel like I’m making a difference. If I can provide tools and ways for making a more resilient society, what better career is there than that?”