ECU Geography Scientists Awarded 3-Year, $314,000 NSF Grant

A research team at East Carolina University is the recent recipient of a three-year, $314,000 National Science Foundation grant, funded by the NSF Directorate for Geosciences’ Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division.

Beginning this fall, Dr. Tom Rickenbach and Dr. Rosana Nieto-Ferreira, atmospheric scientists in the Department of Geography in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, will work on developing and analyzing models of how precipitation is delivered in North Carolina.

In their grant proposal, “Development of a Climatology of Precipitation System Organization in North Carolina to Improve Climate Precipitation Forecasts,” Rickenbach and Nieto-Ferreira suggest that climate change places pressure on North Carolina’s fresh water supply in ways that are not fully understood. They propose that knowing how year-to-year changes in the atmosphere control the way in which precipitation is delivered to the state will lead to a better understanding of the impact that these changes have on the current and future climate of North Carolina, directly impacting all residents.

“Scientists and engineers are constantly improving our ability to measure how much rain and snow reach the surface. What we don’t understand as well is the manner in which that water is typically delivered to us,” said Rickenbach. “That missing piece of the puzzle is crucial to knowing whether precipitation reaching the ground will help or hinder us as we lead our lives. Knowing how a given amount of precipitation reached us – as gentle widespread daily showers, intense isolated but brief thunderstorms, or heavy snowfall – determines how we can best harness it for our needs and whether we must protect ourselves from its impacts.”

“Increasing population, changing land use patterns and climate change all are placing unprecedented pressure on that precious resource in ways that we don’t fully understand,” commented Nieto-Ferreira. “More than ever before, we need to know how precipitation – the source of all our fresh water – responds to changes in our environment. We may then better understand how these variations in precipitation impact our lives, such as agriculture, urban runoff, coastal development and flooding.”

ECU’s scientists will conduct their research in three steps. First, every precipitation system that occurred across North Carolina over a three-year period will be identified and characterized using newly available high-resolution precipitation and three-dimensional radar reflectivity data sets. Next, the mode of delivery of the precipitation will be placed in the context of the prevailing wind and weather patterns of the atmosphere, based on archived maps and analysis. Finally, the climatology will be applied, to the goal of improving the interpretation of state-of-the-art model simulations of future regional climates.

The University of North Carolina Renaissance Computing Institute and the National Climate Data Center will partner with Rickenbach and Nieto-Ferreira to construct and analyze radar-based datasets tailored to the project.

An immediate application of the research will help improve models of regional hydrology by supporting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hydrometeorological Testbed Program, which will examine regional hydrology in North Carolina over the next several years.

For additional information about this NSF grant, contact Rickenbach at 252-328-1039 or, or Nieto-Ferreira at 252-328-0751 or