Face of Defense: Forecasting for the Flightline

Source: DoD (Defense.gov)

Weather conditions are crucial to making or breaking a military operation, which means the role of a meteorologist is extremely important. Marine Corps Sgt. Nathanial Cunningham is a meteorology and oceanography analyst forecaster at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. At every Marine Corps air facility, you’ll find METOC forecasters like Cunningham who collect weather data for flight plans and report to pilots, as well as conditions that can affect physical training and other events on an installation.

Cunningham, 26, turned down college to join the Marine Corps in 2015. After training as a meteorologist, he spent his first few years with the 1st Intelligence Battalion before being transferred to the aviation side of meteorological reporting at Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico in 2020.

Job Title:

Meteorology and Oceanography Analyst Forecaster


Bowling Green, Kentucky


Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia


Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico

Explain the importance of weather forecasting in the military.

To plan an operation, weather is very important. That’s why, in all our meetings, we go first or second before any other sections brief. For example, if you’re planning to do an operation on Tuesday, but there are suddenly thunderstorms forecast, you obviously don’t want to have people out there [in that]. If you’re able to work around it, that’s great; if not, knowing what the weather is going to do so you can plan ahead and plan accordingly is very important.

Then, when it comes to aviation, we have to make sure our pilots know what kind of weather they’re going to be running into. If they don’t and go out unprepared, something catastrophic could happen to where we’re looking at an aircraft mishap or them running into some sort of weather that can seriously damage the personnel or the aircraft.

What sort of training was required to be a meteorologist?

I was sent to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was attached to the Marine detachment there in training status. I spent the next 10 months there, learning and being taught how to forecast, how to make observations, how our job works and how it is implemented into the Marine Corps. Our studies included atmospheric physics, atmospheric dynamics, collection of data, weather forecasting and job performance at the fleet. One of the things we did at the schoolhouse was pull up meteorological aerodrome reports and spent, like, an hour just reading them and breaking them down into plain-word language [for the people we brief].

There’s a learning curve because of the way everything’s encoded, though once you figure it out, it’s like learning math. Once you know the formulas, it will make sense. But learning the formulas can be a little complicated. It takes a little practice and time.

What sort of systems do you use, and are they the same at each installation?

The Automated Surface Observation System and Automatic Heat Stress System are the two main systems we use here at Quantico. The AHSS is for the base and for all the units on base. That is for the personnel, and it’s telling you “Hey, with this humidity and this temperature and these wind speeds, it feels like this rather than this, and this is how it’ll affect your body.” Whereas the ASOS will read out METARs that the National Weather Service and the Aviation Weather Center use. They transmit what the air facility is currently experiencing as far as weather and are used to provide flight plans and reports to pilots so they know what to expect while flying. Other installations have the same systems, but it’s personalized for their area. Some units also have mobile versions of these systems so they can be used in remote locations.

The way the Marine Corps has it set up is there are three major RMCs — Regional METOC Centers — for the aviation side of the house. There’s one at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, [North Carolina]; there is one in Miramar, California; and there’s one in Okinawa, Japan. Those typically work 24 hours , and they are responsible for the METOC shops on their respective coasts or overseas. But for us, since we are a smaller air facility, we are typically open just during the daytime for about 12 hours.

Have you ever dealt with large weather events that were really intense?

When I was deployed in 2019, earthquakes and tsunamis were a big thing we were watching out for, especially in the South China Sea. We were worried about whether we were going to be called in for humanitarian efforts, depending on how much of an impact an earthquake caused on the local populace. I remember there was one time when, I believe, we had a 6.7 [magnitude] earthquake in Indonesia. I don’t think anything was requested of us, but I was monitoring the situation and the effects of it pretty closely.

Sea state — the degree of turbulence at sea — was something we had to deal with a lot, too, when I was deployed. The seas can get upwards of 20 feet easily, which can make transit very rough, if not impassible.

And then, recently, we were talking about the winter storms that we just had to forecast for this past year. Essentially, what we had to do was send out updates to Col. [Michael] Brooks, the base commander, and his staff, with what was happening and explain how it was affecting Quantico. Seeing that was actually really nice, because we could see the actual impact we had on operations.

Speaking of deploying, tell us what that was like.

I deployed in 2019 and was attached with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. I’d worked with them before as part of an exercise. We left [Marine Corps Base Camp] Pendleton, [California], in May of 2019 and got back in November 2019. I was attached to the S2 [intelligence] section of the command element in the Landing Force Operations Center, working very closely with the operations officer and S3 operations section. In a typical day, I would brief the CO and the staff about what was going on around us and where we had Marines, as far as weather is concerned. Then I would monitor those areas, and if anything came up or any requests for information specifically about those areas were brought to me, I would answer those requests and create products. Typical requests we got were, like, drop zone winds for air operations.  

I also had to brief the pilots who were flying off the ship and around the area. Usually, I had an idea of where they were starting from and where they were going, and I could tell them, “Along your flight path, here’s what you can expect as far as turbulence, icing, cross winds” — the weather that could affect them, essentially.

When a forecast is off, do you have to remind people that meteorology isn’t an exact science? Do they complain?

People complain, but typically I will always brief on the side of caution. If I know, while coming up with my forecast, that there could be thunderstorms, I would rather brief that there are going to be thunderstorms than there are not. Because for somebody to prepare for a thunderstorm and have a bright sunny day is a lot better than somebody preparing for a bright sunny day and then getting a thunderstorm. You can still make the best out of a sunny day when you’re prepared for a thunderstorm.

As a joke, I always say the weather is one part science, one part magic and one part luck.

Do you find certain weather events harder to forecast than others? For example, hurricanes vs. tornados vs. winter storms?

Hurricanes are not hard, mostly because there are so many other organizations that forecast for hurricanes because they can affect a lot of people.

Tornadoes can be difficult if you don’t know what to look for. If you’re looking at radar, it’s pretty much saying, “Hey, this storm will have the possibility of a tornado.” But to forecast the exact pinpoint is kind of the luck of the draw. You really just have to watch the radar and say this thunderstorm has the potential to bring tornadoes, and it can be probable due to the history of previous events. Saying where exactly it’s going to be takes watching the radar and staying vigilant.

Winter storms are surprisingly easier to forecast due to the layered atmosphere — knowing the atmospheric dynamics and how that affects [things], especially if you have been at a location for a while. It’s like any job. If you move from one location to another, there’s a different work pace and way things are done — different things that have to happen. When I moved from California to Virginia, it took a minute for me to figure out how winter storms form and how they actually happen, if that makes sense.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

I have a 6-year-old cat named Sunshine, and I volunteer at an animal shelter in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I also ride my motorcycle, play video games with my friends, and I paint miniatures.