Marine Corps Base Quantico -- When clouds are high up in the sky and resemble pulled-apart cotton balls, it usually means the weather is going to be stable. But when you see mountains of puffy clouds building up lower in the atmosphere, watch out, because a change could be coming.
Quantico children learned these tips and more at “All About Weather,” a program sponsored by the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). They also received a special visit from Cpl. Melisa Baker and Lance Cpl. Mellisa Day, Meteorological and Oceanographic (METOC) Marines posted at Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico (MCAF).
“Why do we have meteorologists on Quantico?” asked Amy Watson, EFMP training, education, and outreach specialist.
Baker and Day explained that their job is to brief pilots on the weather before they take off and inform incoming pilots of the weather conditions so they can plan their landings. Differences in atmospheric pressure mean pilots might have more or less space in which to negotiate their landings. MCAF’s runway is shorter and wider than most; add that to the fact that the facility supports Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), which flies VIPs, and it means that MCAF’s METOC Marines have a big job.
“If there’s an accident during landing, that’s on us,” Baker said.
The children learned the names of different clouds: cirrus or stratiform clouds are long, thin clouds found high in the atmosphere, while cumulus clouds are puffy cotton balls seen lower down. When they’re influenced by instability, moisture, or temperature changes, cumulus clouds can be precursors to cumulonimbus clouds, which bring the bad weather.
“All clouds have water in them,” Day explained. “They get bigger, taller, and darker as they accumulate moisture. They turn dark when there is so much moisture in them that the sun can’t shine through. And when they can’t hold the moisture anymore, that’s when it rains.”
Watson demonstrated this for the children by pouring water on a sponge balanced over a jar of clear water. The children watched as the sponge expanded to hold the water. Then Watson squeezed blue food coloring into the water-logged sponge. When the sponge couldn’t hold any more moisture, blue water seeped into the clear water in the jar, representing a rain storm.
The children also learned that a high air pressure system is associated with stable, clear weather, because the weight keeps water vapor in the air from rising, cooling, and condensing into liquid. In a low pressure system, the opposite happens, so low pressure systems are associated with rain and other precipitation.
They learned that tornadoes are not tornadoes until they touch the ground—in the air they are funnel clouds and in the water they are water spouts. They learned that weather in the northern hemisphere, above the equator, always moves from west to east, but that the opposite is true in the southern hemisphere. They learned that freezing rain happens when snow falls through a warm layer in the atmosphere where it melts into rain and then re-freezes as it nears the surface of the earth. And they learned that fog is a cloud that’s gotten trapped on the ground.
METOC Marines attend a seven-month course along with their Air Force and Navy equivalents to be certified for their jobs, Baker and Day said. That’s the equivalent of 68 college credits condensed into a short amount of time. They then complete one month of Marine-specific training. They are certified first to observe and then to forecast the weather. And they must be re-certified in the characteristic weather conditions at each duty station to which they are posted.