Weather ballooning is one of the oldest and most important processes in weather forecasting, providing meteorologists with crucial weather data since the 1930s.
“This is crucial because the atmosphere is constantly changing,” said Rihaan Gangat, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh.
Recently, he was prepping a weather instrument called a radiosonde. Twice a day, the sensor is carried into the atmosphere by balloon.
“It measures the temperature of the atmosphere. The relative humidity sensor measures moisture in the atmosphere,” Gangat said.
GPS monitoring calculates winds and there’s an air pressure sensor located in the cardboard and styrofoam sensor, which costs about $100 each.
Ninety-two stations launch balloons twice a day in the U.S., with 800 stations worldwide launching them simultaneously. The balloons come in small plastic bags and are made out of latex.
Helium is added until the balloon is roughly 6 feet in diameter, then rope is used to tie it. When released, it will rise about 1,000 feet per minute. After checking current conditions, the balloon is ready for launch.
Antennas track the balloon and data comes in every second. Once complete, the data is sent to the National Center for Environmental Prediction to be used when computing weather forecast models.
“You need that data. You have to have a starting point,” said Rodney Smith, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh.
Smith used to launch balloons in the 1980′s. He says the process hasn’t really changed, but the computers that handle the weather data continue to improve.
“That is what really has pushed us forward with more accurate models and more accurate forecasts,” Smith said.
Smith expects balloon launches to continue for years to come.