I'm not sure what I was expecting the NOAA building to look like -- probably something more industrial and bunker-like -- but it was actually a nice, normal-looking type of building you would find in any business park.
You wouldn't think the National Weather Service would all that exciting, but it was. Okay, it wasn't exactly *exciting* but it was very interesting and informative, and all the folks there were really nice, patient, and actually appreciated all of the questions we asked (most questions came from Michael, along with many answers). We started out in the conference room, where they had really nifty chairs.
I think the part of the presentation that got the most appreciative attention was the weather balloon. They are sent up twice per day from all stations across the country, all synchronized to go up all at the same time. Apparently it's very important that all of the devices collect data at the same time for comparison and forecasting purposes. Inflated, the balloons measure about six feet across and are filled with hydrogen (Michael guessed that one). As they get higher into the atmosphere where there is less, well, atmosphere, they continue to expand until at around 10,000 feet they reach the size of a two-story house before bursting. The device, which is housed in a Styrofoam casing, pops its little parachute and falls to the ground. Only a tiny number of these devices are recovered, but they do have a postage-paid envelope attached to them so you can return any device you happen to find.
After the presentation (which included many, many questions and answers) we went into the part of the building where most of the work of forecasting is done. It looks pretty much like most offices with a large bull-pen area containing a number of cubicles. Just a lot more computer monitors and a couple of TV screens with the news running. We all gathered around one of the work stations to see what the meteorologists do, and to ask more questions.
On our way out the kids spotted the "giant golf ball" that is actually the satellite thingy that talks to the weather balloon devices.
A big "thank you" to the nice folks at the Weather Service for your time and for your ability to make weather interesting, and to Maria for setting up this trip for all of us.