Storms, floods, seasons among subjects of UNC scholar's book on N.C. weather

November 18, 2005

CHAPEL HILL - Mark Twain, that wonderful wag, reportedly once said that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

Dr. Peter J. Robinson, professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a notable exception. Robinson, also director of the North Carolina Climate Program and former state climatologist, cannot change the weather, of course, but he has studied it for decades and written about it extensively.

The University of North Carolina Press has just published his latest book, North Carolina Weather & Climate. People fascinated by the natural world, weather buffs across the state and others have a treat coming from the unique work's full-color, 256-pages, including 15 photographs, 20 drawings, 41 figures, 23 tables and 46 maps.

Deadly, home-wrecking hurricanes such as Hazel, Dennis, Floyd and Fran, tornadoes, other storms, sunshine, seasons, temperatures and flooding are among hundreds of subjects covered in language aimed at lay readers. Other topics range from why the Ohio-born Wright brothers chose Kitty Hawk in 1900 to begin their series of historic flights to what the probabilities are of having a white Christmas anywhere in the state. Still others are air pollution, weather forecasting and global climate change.

"If you are a newcomer to North Carolina, this book will help you to see immediately just how diverse our climate is," said Greg Fishel, a weatherman for WRAL television in Raleigh. "And even if you're a native of our state, you may not realize how much meteorological madness you can find here. In his own way, (Robinson) explains for you all the variables that go into making our weather among the most exciting in the world."

Jay Barnes, author of "North Carolina's Hurricane History," said the UNC geographer has assembled the first true compendium of the state's weather. "It will be a valuable resource for serious sky-watchers as well as anyone who lives, works or travels in the Tar Heel state."

"For more than 30 years I have been involved with North Carolina's climate - professionally as teacher and researcher but more personally as one who has lived in it," Robinson wrote in his preface. "Coming from Britain, I found the range, variety and sometimes violence of North Carolina's weather intriguing, challenging and stimulating.

"Camping in all kinds of weather, including abandoning a campsite at Cape Hatteras as an off-shore hurricane got closer, throwing away a sodden test after a week of rain in the Smokies and watching glorious sunrises or sunsets from the mountains to the sea, always raised questions about why our weather behaves the way it does."

No one knows more about the state's weather than Robinson. Two years ago, he analyzed a century's worth of weather data and other records of storms and flooding and unearthed facts that may surprise people.

"The most intense hurricanes to strike the state -- such as Hazel in 1954 -- were not associated with the worst flooding," he said. "And the devastating flooding that followed Dennis and Floyd in 1999 was by no means unprecedented."

Concerns have grown that the southeastern United States will experience greater climatic extremes as climate changes, and it is becoming more vulnerable to their impacts, said Robinson, a member of UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. For North Carolina, this finding was especially pertinent following the two major hurricanes in 1999. The events were unprecedented in the historical record, some people said, and were considered a herald of future climatic conditions.

But that's likely not true, the meteorologist said. Careful examination of the records showed serious inland flooding was not uncommon in the 20th Century, and that flooding had different causes, including lingering non-tropical storms and even melting snow.

He found 31 major inland floods during the past century, including eight directly related to hurricanes. Each of the latter required a precursor storm, often an earlier hurricane, to overcome the dry soils and low stream flows typical of late summer and fall. He found five double-hurricane floods in the past 100 years.

"The frequencies of these floods by decade were poorly correlated with the total number of hurricanes," Robinson said. "Most floods involved slow-moving, decaying weather systems, not intense ones."

An increase in hurricane intensities, often suggested as a consequence of climate change, may actually lead to fewer floods, he said.

"North Carolina weather is wonderful in its variety, from the quiet of a cloudless mountain morning after a winter snowstorm to the splendor of dogwoods blooming on a bright spring day in the Piedmont, and even to the tempest of a hurricane approaching the coast on an autumn night," Robinson wrote. "Knowing more about the weather helps me appreciate it more and live with it more wisely. I hope this book helps you do the same."
UNC News Services

Note: Robinson can be reached via cell phone at (919) 280-9710, 962-3875 (w) or e-mail at
News Services contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596
UNC Press contacts: Gina Mahalek, (919) 966-3561, Ext. 234 or Meagan Bonnell, 966-3829
UNC Press Web site:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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