The Detroit Post
Thursday, 28 October, 2021

Do Weather Balloons Cause Pollution

James Lee
• Tuesday, 08 December, 2020
• 9 min read

Among rubbish found on a remote Australian beach, there is a tangle of plastic and rubber that resembles anything but a vital piece of technology. But there are growing concerns about their contribution to pollution levels, prompting calls for scientists to take a more environmentally conscious approach.


(Supplied: Jennifer Layers) Heidi Taylor from the Kangaroo Blue Foundation, which cleans up marine debris across the country, recently came across partially degraded weather balloons on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, more than 2,100 kilometers off the WA coast. (Supplied: Tim Landon) It is a problem the BOM has struggled to solve, according to its environmental sustainability officer, Janet Shelley.

A remote and uninhabited island wilderness in the South Pacific is literally a garbage dump and these photos prove it. Read more The BOM releases about 56 balloons each day from dozens of locations around Australia and its offshore territories, including Antarctica.

It is part of Australia's international responsibilities under the Convention of the World Meteorological Organization to record climate measurements in the upper atmosphere. (ABC Rural: Caddie Brain) Weather balloons take precise measurements of temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction.

They are made of latex rubber which is filled with hydrogen gas and can travel hundreds of kilometers as they reach the upper atmosphere. A radiosonde, housed in a plastic box the size of a TV remote and attached by a string, contains battery-powered sensors used to take the measurements.

A cardboard target below the radiosonde allows the device to be tracked by radar, while a parachute helps the balloon reach the ground safely after its job is done. But small design improvements have been made over the years, including replacing a polystyrene radar target with cardboard and using smaller lithium batteries.

This partially degraded weather balloon was found among plastic debris on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. With plastic pollution increasingly in the spotlight, pressure is mounting on institutions like the BOM to do more to reduce their footprint.

Launched 26 times, with the highest flight reaching 110,718 feet above sea level. “HARBOR flights routinely reach altitudes well above 80,000 feet.

Payloads above 99 percent of Earth's atmosphere -- quite literally at the edge of space,” said John Soil, HARBOR Attainable by aircraft (which fly too low) and spacecraft (which orbit too high).

“Now that we have this new board that will support additional sensors, we are a step closer to one of HARBOR's Next goals -- to create the actual tool, the sensor, to measure gas and aerosol,” Petersen said.

For Petersen, this project presented numerous learning opportunities, and even opened the door to an internship Soil explained that HARBOR is a goal-oriented, mission-based program styled after NASA flights.

Because they are soft and malleable, latex balloons easily conform to an animal’s stomach cavity or digestive tract and can cause obstruction, starvation and death. Utilizing citizen science as a way to collect more data and help raise awareness in the Great Lakes region and beyond, Lara O'Brien created an online survey in June 2019 that people can use to record the date, location, condition and photo of balloon debris.

The survey is completely anonymous and can be easily accessed on a smartphone, so users can document balloon debris they find while walking the dog, hiking or participating in a beach cleanup. Since the survey began, citizen scientists have helped record more than 1,580 pieces of balloon debris found in an area stretching from remote Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior to Sandbanks Provincial Park in Lake Ontario.

Surveys and photos have also been submitted from Washington state, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Kansas, Florida, Iceland and the United Kingdom. The most important feature of this survey allows volunteers to pinpoint and submit the exact GPS coordinates of balloon debris in real time.

It helps researchers see emerging patterns or trends that might be present, including potential hotspots where higher concentrations of balloon debris may occur. This includes the Indiana Dunes National Park southeast of Chicago, where volunteers regularly come across balloons.

A growing movement across the United States is calling for more policies and laws restricting or eliminating single-use plastics, including balloons. California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia have all passed laws prohibiting the deliberate release of balloons in order to protect the environment and wildlife.

Volunteers who want to collect data and map the location of balloon debris in their communities may visit the project’s page on the citizen science site Starter or at balloon This litter is totally preventable yet millions of balloons are intentionally released every year.

These observations include vertical profiles of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure, and potential height. This is because a burst balloon often resembles a jellyfish, the natural food sources of many marine species like turtles.

Ingesting balloons, and the clips and strings attached to them, can cause intestinal blockages and results in a slow painful death through starvation. Marine animals don’t have the gastrointestinal pH levels to breakdown a balloon and for turtles, it may also cause floating syndrome.

Sadly, nearly half of all seabird species are likely to ingest debris eating everything from balloons to glow sticks, plastic pellets, foam, metal hooks and fishing line. This means they can end up in all types of landscapes including properties, waterways, oceans, bushland, recreational areas, and farmlands.

Latex (rubber): typically degrade more quickly than other types of plastics (much slower if in water) but can take years to fully break down depending on the conditions and the chemical and dyes used to manufacture. All of these materials, if littered, can cause entanglement, injury and death to pets and wildlife, and also adds to the huge volumes of plastic waste in our environment.

This includes 92 released by the National Weather Service in the US and its territories. Weather balloons, which are made of latex or synthetic rubber (neoprene), are filled with either hydrogen or helium.

The balloons, which start out measuring about 6 ft. wide before release, expand as they rise to about 20 ft. in diameter! An instrument called a radiosonde is attached to the balloon to measure pressure, temperature and relative humidity as it ascends up into the atmosphere.

These instruments will often endure temperatures as cold as -139 °F (-95 °C), relative humidifies from 0% to 100%, air pressures only a few thousandths of what is found on the Earth's surface, ice, rain, thunderstorms, and wind speeds of almost 200 mph! A transmitter on the radiosonde sends the data back to tracking equipment on the ground every one to two seconds.

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers used in agriculture.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts. Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making. According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution.

Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed.

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018. Living within 3.1 miles (5 km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01 mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and 'internal stress'.

However, MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by as they will have an equivalent range and price. The speedy electrification of Norway's automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies.

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