How weather balloons work

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 10:50 PM MDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) - Meteorologists have different tools at their disposal to help them with forecasting. A weather balloon is one such tool. It has an instrument that collects data such as temperatures, dew points, atmospheric pressure, and wind speeds as it travels through the sky. It transmits that information to satellites, which in turn transmit it down to a computer program that allows meteorologists to view the data as it is being collected in real-time. Weather balloons help meteorologists know what’s happening in the upper atmosphere.

The Grand Junction National Weather Service (NWS) office launches the balloon twice daily, at 5 am and 5 pm. However, there will be times when weather balloons cannot take flight, such as during a thunderstorm. “For our safety rules, it is lightning. So anytime there is lightning five to ten miles of the station, we are not able to launch cause you’re holding the balloon, and that’s a big lightning rod potentially,” said Megan Stackhouse, Meteorologist at the Grand Junction National Weather Service. It is a safety protocol that the National Weather Service sets to protect its employees from a potential strike.

The instrument will collect data along the way if there is a successful launch. Data that meteorologists can see as it occurs in real-time. When launched, it can travel as high as 100,000 feet, around 19-20 miles from the launch point, and stay in the air for about two hours. All this information gets incorporated into weather models, which meteorologists can use to help forecast future weather.

Stackhouse mentions that the data from the instrument can tell them the jet stream’s position. The jet stream is essential to know where weather systems will come into a region.

Eventually, the balloon will pop due to the increased pressure in the atmosphere. When it pops, the instrument returns to the surface by parachute. Stackhouse states that during the descent, it can still send data for about three to five minutes before data becomes unavailable. As it returns to the surface, it can land anywhere. According to Stackhouse, many instruments end up on the Grand Mesa. However, some can land in people’s backyards. If you retrieve one of these instruments, there are instructions on returning it to the NWS as they are reusable for future launches.

While weather balloons are becoming crucial to a meteorologist, they are also very costly. Stackhouse stated that one weather balloon with an instrument for one launch could cost anywhere from $300-$500. Most funding happens through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

So while these are not your average party balloons from the store, they are a vital piece of equipment for the NWS. Not every office in the country launches weather balloons, but for those who do, it is a key step in forecasting the weather and its future impact across the country.

Copyright 2022 KKCO. All rights reserved.