Specialized balloons help meteorologists forecast weather

Instrument sends data to National Weather Service

(Getty Images)

ORLANDO, Fla. – There are many different instruments that meteorologists use to forecast the weather. Some may be familiar like thermometers, anemometers, wind vanes, and rain gauges. But what about balloons?

Yes, balloons. Not just any type of balloon can be used. Weather balloons are built to withstand some serious weather conditions. 

They're made of latex or synthetic rubber, filled with hydrogen or helium, and are around 6 feet wide when they're released. 

So how does a weather balloon help with a forecast? 

The balloon carries an instrument called a radiosonde that's attached below it on a string. A radiosonde reads the temperature, pressure and relative humidity as it rises with the balloon through the atmosphere.

Winds are calculated via GPS while the balloon is on its trip. It then transmits the information back to the National Weather Service every few seconds. This information gives a vertical snapshot of what's happening in every layer of the atmosphere up to about 100,000 feet up. On its way up, the balloon expands up to about 20 feet wide before it bursts after about a two-hour trip. 

So what happens to the radiosonde? Well, there's a parachute attached to it that will carry it back to the surface of the Earth where it lands safely and can be reused. 

If it's not close by, there are directions that come with a package to put the instrument inside and mail it back to the National Weather Service. 

This process happens twice a day, every day, from about 800 locations worldwide, simultaneously. 

The National Weather Service does this for the United States and surrounding territories that make up 92 of the locations. 

The information that's received from the radiosonde is then used to input into computer forecast models, local severe storm, aviation, fire weather and marine forecasts. It's also used in pollution models and as ground truth for satellite data. 

So there you have it. Balloons are more than just for celebrations --they're a key tool used in forecasting the weather on a daily basis. 

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