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Geosciences Support Marine Corps Operations

By Bob Freeman
Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2010 – When Marines land on a beach and push inland to secure a strategic objective, the physical environment can either be a tactical asset or a dangerous impediment.

Marine Corps weather specialists ensure that the “boots on the ground” get a tactical advantage through detailed knowledge of the operational environment.

“We're responsible for everything from the bottom of the ocean to the sun,” explained Marine Corps Master Sgt. Kari Hubler in a March 24 interview on Pentagon Web Radio's webcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.”

Hubler, a 17-year veteran of the Marine Corps' meteorology and oceanography community, serves as an instructor and curriculum developer at the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Professional Development Center in Gulfport, Miss., a joint Navy and Marine Corps training center.

“Environmental parameters ultimately affect any given mission or capability,” she explained. “We provide climatological information to help in the mission planning process, and we provide environmental information to the on-scene combatant commanders to help make tactical decisions during operations.”

Hubler explained that the Marine Corps fights on land, in the air and on the sea, and their environmental specialists must be able to provide support for the full range of military operations.

The first is the air.

“We do aviation forecasting, … forecasting upper-air parameters such as winds, temperature, moisture - all things that have a direct effect on the safety of aviation operations,” she said.

“We frequently conduct amphibious beach landings,” Hubler continued, “so some of the environmental conditions we assess, analyze and forecast are in the surf zone - current direction, current speed, beach slope, tides, … things of that nature.”

Hubler noted that providing astronomical information such as the time of sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, nautical and civil twilight, and the amount of lunar illumination also is part of the job.

“We're also very interested in how atmospheric conditions affect the performance of electro-optical sensors like night vision goggles,” she added.

Hubler went on to describe other examples of environmental support. “In moist tropical climates we're concerned about the rate and duration of precipitation that occurs,” she said, “which can affect troop maneuverability inland, and the ability of the soil to absorb precipitation that falls, which definitely affects the trafficability of different vehicle types.”

Desert operations provide specific challenges for Marine Corps forecasters, Hubler noted, including extreme temperatures and sandstorms. Mountain operations are characterized by extremely dynamic weather systems.

Another challenge, Hubler told the program’s listeners, is forecasting river environments since troops frequently use rivers to move inland. “We're particularly interested in assessing and forecasting river stages and flood potential,” she said.

Hubler said all forecasting is based on gathering data, analyzing the environment to determine what physical processes are affecting it, and then forecasting how those variables will change over time.

“In the case of a river,” she noted, “we need data from over the entire river basin to predict conditions for a specific point along the river.”

River forecasts start with detailed weather forecasts that include precipitation rate of fall and duration, and then considers characteristics like the stream flow of tributaries that feed the river, and the types of soil and vegetation cover to determine run-off rates that feed the riverine system, she explained.

Hubler said that the first challenge was getting the required data. “A lot of it … comes from ‘in-situ’ sensors, different reconnaissance missions that are being conducted on the ground, aircraft flying over the region, and even from space-based sensors or remote sensors,” she said. “We have to come up with a strong, sound sensing strategy based on available assets in theater.”

Another challenge is achieving continuity and persistence of observations, and what Hubler referred to as the “eyes-on experience.”

“If you don’t have sensors on the ground, or that eyes-on view, you may be able to accurately predict that the river is going to rise 10 feet, but you have no idea, once that river reaches flood stage, what it is going to do to the terrain,” she said.

For operations in combat zones, Hubler said, Marine Corps weather specialists use various sensors and equipment housed in a meteorological mobile facility. She described it as having “a suite of meteorological sensors, upper air sounding capabilities, meteorological satellites, Doppler radar, and a communications suite.”

“It also has the software our forecasters need in analyzing and forecasting the environment, as well as software programs that we call ‘tactical decision aids’ to help them assess how the environment is going to affect specific military operations,” Hubler explained.

“We also conduct what we call ‘reach-back operations,’” Hubler continued, “so we maintain contact with the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command’s Warfare Support Center … to get an accumulated view of the best environmental picture that is available and provide that to the combatant commanders.”

Hubler said that Marine Corps meteorological and oceanographic enlisted specialists receive their training at a joint Air Force-Navy-Marine Corps training facility at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

“Then they are sent out to the operational forces where they learn to apply what they have learned at the school, and they begin to master those core skills,” Hubler said. “They can come back for follow-on sustainment training and education at the Professional Development Center, which is a joint Navy and Marine Corps center that provides training and education in the realm of the geosciences,” she continued. “That’s currently where I am serving, as a [curriculum] developer and instructor.”

Hubler said the Professional Development Center provides classes on location in a classroom environment, but also develops training through distance learning, including correspondence manuals, Web-based and computer training tutorials, and instructor-led long-distance learning through the Marine Corps College of Continuing Education satellite campuses and learning resource centers.

“There are a variety of solutions we can use, depending on the difficulty of the training requirement and the length of the training that is required,” she explained.

Hubler said new courses in applied environmental sciences are in development. She described one course as having seven chapters for seven different scientific disciplines.

“This course introduces our Marines to required geosciences beyond meteorology,” she said. “We are paving the way for future Marines.”

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