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Weather Warriors: Meet the Pentagon’s Combat Climatologists

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A skateboarder rides outside the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. John Brecher / NBC News

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Skateboarders and street musicians don’t typically surround the walls of a major military headquarters. But that’s the case at the Veach-Baley Federal Building here, where — steps from a juice bar and a well-known drum circle — a team of Air Force analysts is monitoring the apocalypse.

“Is climate change accelerating? Absolutely,” said Ray Kiess, the lead scientist of the 14th Weather Squadron. “The extremes in this era are significantly being changed year in, year out.”

The 14th is the Pentagon’s oldest office of climatology, a go-to for all manner of atmospheric readings. It collects more than a million weather observations a day, the bulk of the planet's most-downloaded set of surface data. Both the National Climate Assessment and the International Panel on Climate Change have used it in recent reports, noting the increasingly dire effects of global warming.

Climate Talk: What Is a 'Global Temperature?' 0:43

But the 14th has also become a defense against climate change itself, a source of original insights into what Secretary of State John Kerry has called “the greatest threat that the planet has ever seen.”

“We’ve been having lunch table conversations about it for years,” Kiess continued, sitting in the squadron’s darkened conference room. “The only difference now is there’s a focus on it.”

If the “climate wars” are more than a metaphor, the sixty men and women of the 14th are having a new kind of front line experience. It's a scene of aggressive normalcy, a cubicle farm where people tack up Dilbert cartoons — with weather jokes, of course — and just so happen to make life-or-death predictions about the future.

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Wall decorations among the cubicles at the 14th Weather Squadron. John Brecher / NBC News

“We provide cutting edge climatology for the war-fighter,” said Lt. Col. Glenn Kerr, the commander of the 14th. His motto for the squadron is “Past weather, Our Future.” The same idea has been taken up by leaders from every branch of the military.

Here, too, the 14th played a role, contributing cornerstone work to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the first to recognize global warming as a throttle for conflict and an ulcer for planners. In an era of undulating norms, the 14th provides data — “environmental intelligence,” they call it — that drives military decision-making.

After their founding in 1941, the 14th supported the success of the D-Day forecasts. Now the squadron’s work supports the Pentagon as it picks the location of new bases, builds better drones, and launches raids when the skies are favorable. It’s a perpetually open-tab at the larger Air Force Weather Agency and, as world leaders prepare for the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23rd, a popular resource for the wider military as well.

The 14th has no public internet presence but traffic to them through the Pentagon’s private network has quadrupled in a year, according to Maj. Ryan Harris, the 14th’s director of operations. Meanwhile, special requests, most of them secret, have continued to stack up at a rate of more than two-a-day, clogging what some joke is the “Sneaker-net.”

In an email, Scott Hausman, the squadron’s most recent former commander said that people with “.mil” domains have been accessing more federal climate data in general. In January of 2012, for instance, the largest set of federal climate data got 155,000 hits from ".mil" domains. By this past January, the number of hits had nearly doubled, to 293,000.

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Ray Keiss at the 14th Weather Squadron. John Brecher / NBC News

“When I came on there was a lag with regard to the climate,” said Hausman, the head of support services at the National Climatic Data Center, which is located in the same building in Asheville. “There was skepticism. What does the science really tell us? How much can we really bring climate change info into the strategic thinking?"

Now a lot of that skepticism has burned off, Maj. Harris added, citing more intense interest from members of the intelligence community and leaders in Washington. “They want to know, what’s going to be the next drought area of the world? They want to know about the potential for climate-related unrest,” he said. “There’s a higher interest in all that for sure.”

The 14th isn’t the only unit to study the security implications of a warmer, more turbulent world. But it’s the only unit that’s focused primarily on land combat climatology. Long before President Obama authorized air strikes on ISIS, his planners turned to Air Force data.

“The environmental intelligence that we have provided has served as another data point for our military and intelligence leaders’,” Harris said.

To really understand the 14th’s unique mission, it’s best to imagine global weather as a bit of a dice game. Each day is a new roll, and each roll is a matter of pure chance. That’s not good enough for the Pentagon, so it turns to the 14th for help.

The team starts with the world’s largest archive of weather data, more than 150 years of farmers lifting a wet finger toward the sky and satellites circling the globe. It crunches that data, projecting the likelihood of any given condition anywhere on earth—and the likelihood of it shifting. The result is still a dice game, but now each roll can be loaded in the Pentagon’s favor. If a general wants cloud cover, for instance, he can pick a day when cloud cover is likely.

"It's a good mission, and we're proud of it," said Kiess.

He was joined in the conference room by Mike Hunsucker, the squadron’s lead analyst, and George Moody, the squadron’s data guru. They’re close colleagues and old buddies, the three wise men of Air Force climatology. “I don’t know about us being wise men,” corrects Kiess, a part-time pastor. “Some people call us the mafia.”

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George Moody at in the 14th Weather Squadron. John Brecher / NBC News

The data comes through Moody, a self-described “accidental weather dude.” He joined the Navy (before moving to the Air Force as a civilian) thinking he would be a nuclear engineer, a dream sunk by colorblindness. Now our image of the earth depends in part on the strength of his morning coffee.

Most of the time the data-checks are easy and automatic: a weather person types in 96, for instance, when he really means 69. The computer catches it, no problem. But other times he and his team have to puzzle through a mystery. The appearance of thick clouds can mean dust on a weather station; a freak rain storm can be the work of an animal in search of a toilet.

Sometimes there seems to be a degree of intentionality involved. The weather, after all, is a major factor in war and not every country sending data is a U.S. ally. The 14th calls the bad feeds “commie obs,” a winking reference to the data wars American weather people once fought with Russian meteorologists.

“There were times when we had their data and we had a photo and we thought, oh yeah, commie obs working again,” recalled Kiess.

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Cubicles in the data branch of the 14th Weather Squadron. John Brecher / NBC News

His desk is decorated with a disordered pile of official Air Force trophies, the civilian equivalent of medals or service. His career began in Roanoke, Virginia, where he won a Boy Scout badge for forecasting. He later added a masters degree in atmospheric science from N.C. State, but most of his expertise is in-born or on the job.

He was once the Pentagon’s cloud master, working deep inside Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska. There, in an iron room-within-a-room on the same floor where the Enola Gay was built, he perfected a model of global cloud cover, the first in existence. It helped clear the mechanical vision of America’s satellites.

Now he creates the maps, charts, and mobile apps that have turned the 14th into military click-bait. One map, for example, shows the number of 90-degree days at Air Force installations worldwide, and projects it out to 2030 and 2050.

“The situation is dire in some places,” he said. “We’re not talking about maintenance and fuel and training. We’re talking: can the thing even fly? The runways are going to be 150 degrees.”

Another map portrays the risk of drought, flood or other extremes worldwide. “When are the guys with the machetes going to come in from the east?” said Kiess, referring to the destabilizing potential of extreme weather. “That’s the kind of question they want answered.”

Hunsucker is the most mysterious of the three. He’s done national intelligence work, including classified forecasts for outer space. But he’s above all a people person, the only member of the wise men in Asheville who routinely talks with the “customers,” whether they’re high up in the White House or way down in a underground bunker.

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Mike Hunsucker at his desk in the 14th Weather Squadron. John Brecher / NBC News

With a top secret clearance, there’s not a lot that Hunsucker can share about what he does now. He keeps color pictures of a tornado he once predicted hung on his wall like animal pelts, and that was a primary subject of conversation.

As the sun dropped behind the Smoky Mountains, he slipped on a black leather coat and a wide-brim hat more Indiana Jones than military weather man. He was followed outside by the others, the whole incongruous squadron merging with a city of tambourine men and dread-locked nomads.

“Have a good weekend, everyone,” said Maj. Harris. “It’s supposed to be nice.”