In the other hand, the scientist grasps a radiosonde, a lightweight cardboard box filled with scientific instruments that's tied to the bottom of the balloon. As the balloon hurtles away from the Earth, the radiosonde is already hard at work, beaming atmospheric information back to data centers.
It may have started out modestly, but now, at almost 18 miles (29 kilometers) high, the balloon has swelled to the size of a moving truck. Stretched to its limit, the balloon's thin synthetic rubber bursts and sends the tiny radiosonde plummeting back toward Earth.
Within seconds, the wind catches a small, orange parachute and slows the device's descent. Hours later -- and hundreds of miles from where it first lifted off -- the weather balloon touches the ground.
More than 70 years after scientists sent up the first experimental weather balloon, they remain the workhorses of modern meteorological forecasts. Whether it's a tornado warning or the weather report on the 6 o'clock news, weather balloons are what keep people on the ground tuned in to the meteorological workings of the upper atmosphere.
Tagging along for the ride was John Jeffries, an American physician known for dabbling in weather observation. In the skies above Northern Europe, Jeffries hoped to record some first-ever measurements of the upper atmosphere.
When the balloon came dangerously close to crashing into the English Channel, however, Jeffries was forced to toss his equipment overboard to lighten the load. It may be sunny and quiet at sea level, but at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters), a weak storm system could soon turn into something more dangerous.
By sending up regular squadrons of balloons to measure the conditions of the upper atmosphere, meteorologists can keep tabs on brewing storms. With such a limited data set, the best meteorologists can do is predict the weather a few hours into the future.
High-altitude weather data is critical for predicting oncoming natural disasters like tornadoes, thunderstorms or flash floods. Thanks to weather balloons, officials can scramble supplies and emergency personnel to an affected area hours before a weather disaster strikes.
In 2009, Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists Oliver Yes and Justin Lee used a weather balloon, a cooler, a cell phone and a digital camera to take a high altitude photograph of the Earth for less than $150. Of course, Yes and Lee warn that launching things into the stratosphere can be dangerous .
If it's not equipped with proper parachutes, an amateur weather balloon can become a deadly projectile if it falls in an urban area. The balloons could also provoke a disaster by getting sucked into the jet engines of a passing airliner.
During a meteor shower, a high-altitude balloon can collect cosmic dust emitted by the passing space rocks. Occasionally, an American homeowner wakes up to find a spent weather balloon in his or her backyard.
The slide is coated with film of lithium chloride (ICL), the electrical resistance of which changes based on the surrounding humidity. As the air pressure around it decreases at higher altitudes, the canister expands, triggering a sensor.
The radiosonde also has a low-powered radio transmitter to relay data from all three instruments back to receivers on the ground. The advantage of a radiosonde is that scientists don't need to retrieve the device to obtain weather data.
Holding the whole assembly aloft is a large balloon made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber. The balloons are filled either with helium or hydrogen depending on the preferences of the individual launch station.
However, hydrogen is also very flammable -- a fact that has prompted many explosion-shy weather stations to adopt helium instead. Altogether, a complete weather balloon assembly costs about a few hundred dollars.
In an isolated field in the middle of Australia, NASA officials slowly inflated a massive helium balloon that would carry a $2 million gamma ray telescope into the upper atmosphere. Crew members ran for their lives as the telescope smashed into a nearby SUV and ripped through a fence before crumpling into a heap more than 492 feet (150 meters) away.
Of the many things that can go wrong during a balloon launch, leaving a trail of destruction is obviously one of the worst. In the United States, weather stations will typically have an onsite shed built especially for the purpose of balloon inflation.
As it fills, he tests the radiosonde's battery, tunes the radio equipment and attaches the whole assembly together with a length of nylon cord. Once the balloon has inflated to about the size of a yoga ball, the technician ties it off and ushers it outside.
Walking the balloon a short distance clear of trees, power lines and other obstacles, he'll simply give it a gentle push upward. As soon as the balloon begins to float, the radiosonde gets to work, beaming data to weather computers on the ground.
By noting the sideways movement of the ascending balloon, they can calculate wind speed and direction at different altitudes. With less air pressure to rein it in, the gas inside the balloon expands as its altitude rises.
The balloon can only expand so much, however, and it will typically burst at altitudes above 15 miles (24.1 kilometers) -- about three times higher than Mount Everest. If the radiosonde was simply allowed to plummet to earth, it could wreak deadly havoc on human settlements below.
As the balloon ascends, the parachute remains folded by the downward rush of air. When the assembly starts to descend, however, the parachute is blown open, slowing the balloon to a manageable 22 miles per hour (9.8 meters per second).
If balloons catch a particularly strong gust of wind, they can travel several hundred miles -- touching down anywhere from a marshy bog to the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Sending helicopters to pick up almost 200 weather balloons launched in the United States each day simply isn't in the budget.
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.
Weather balloons are high-altitude balloons that can be sent up into near-space to conduct experiments on atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speeds and more. Today’s technology allows for easy tracking and customization when it comes to sending a weather balloon into the atmosphere.
Eventually, the balloon will soar higher than the elevation commercial airplanes fly at! Passing 63,000 feet (the altitude at which blood boils) the balloon will leave the Troposphere and enter the Stratosphere.
While it is soaring overhead, students can use Statista’s Mission Control to follow along with the balloon’s flight. Thanks to today’s technology, during the flight, students will get real time updates about their experiment and things like altitude, pressure, temperature, and speed.
This article is more than 2 years old. The city of Atlanta was temporarily on alert this week when a suspicious package was found near the Capitol building in Georgia's largest city. The simple answer is that complex mathematical equations are solved to predict how the fluid above us (the atmosphere) changes in time.
In fact, you may have heard debates about the American vs the European weather models. Weather balloons are launched from about 900 locations around the world two times daily to collect information on temperature, humidity, and winds at various levels in the atmosphere.
Such data is used to help initiate the computer models with current condition of the atmosphere. Derived information from the weather balloons can also be used to diagnose how unstable the atmosphere is and whether there are significant changes in the wind (shear).
A transmitter on the radiosonde sends the data back to tracking equipment on the ground every one to two seconds. This week over northern Georgia, winds were relatively light in the upper level of the atmosphere so the balloon did not travel very far.
The balloons, which start out measuring about 6 ft. wide before release, expand as they rise to about 20 ft. in diameter! The radiosonde will typically have a bag and instructions attached if you happen to find one.
J. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate, was the 2013 President of American Meteorological Society (AMS) and is Director of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Atmospheric Sciences Program. Dr. Shepherd is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor and hosts The Weather Channel’s Weather Geeks Podcast, which can be found at all podcast outlets.
Prior to UGA, Dr. Shepherd spent 12 years as a Research Meteorologist at NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center and was Deputy Project Scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. Shepherd is frequently sought as an expert on weather and climate by major media outlets, the White House, and Congress.