Weather Balloons: How old technology still helps the current forecast

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It’s a technology that’s been around for centuries.

It was first introduced by French meteorologists clear back in the 1800s and later used to discover the differences in the lower troposphere and stratosphere – the very same practice still used today worldwide to provide vital forecasting information.

“Every day at noon and midnight, Greenwich mean time, 100 places in the United States and places around the world all launch weather balloons,” said Christopher O’Brien, NOAA upper-air meteorologist.

But before these balloons can take flight, close attention is paid to the way they are put together.

“We can’t touch the balloon with our hands, because they say the stuff on our hands cause the balloon to burst early,” said O’ Brien.

A parachute is then added to our weather flying machine and as much as 100 feet of string is rolled out to make sure there’s enough space between the balloon and the radio sonde.

The radio sonde is the actual instrument that sends back the atmospheric data.

Even with the winds increasing to over 20 mph, the launch is still a go. Lightning is the only weather hazard that will ground a flight.

Before a weather burst, it will rise to 100,000 feet, and its circumference will be the size of a two-car garage.

“Every second it’s sending data back to the ground with the barometric pressure, the temperature, the humidity, and what the winds are doing the direction, the wind that we can what’s happening not only at the surface but up above, O’Brien said.

Once the balloons pop, they slowly descend and can land up to 100 miles away from the launch site.

If one of these lands in your yard, they come with a return envelope and can be sent back to the National Weather Service.

“I don’t think they could do it any other way especially as cheaply,” said O’Brien.

The average cost of a launch is around $200.

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