How a simple weather balloon helps improve your daily forecast

Weather balloons are the joke when there’s something flying around that we can’t identify. Strange light over the city? Curious object behind the clouds? Ahh, it’s just a weather balloon.

Beyond their punchline status, however, weather balloons play a surprising role in your everyday life. These ubiquitous tools are essential for weather forecasting – without them we would be lost in the clouds.

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We have a pretty solid network of observatories locally. It’s hard to overlook the current temperature inside your house, outside on the deck, or even in front of the bank in the street.

But knowing what the weather is like locally is only a tiny fraction of the story.

Meteorologists need a complete picture of what the weather is like now so they can predict what it will do in the coming days. These include conditions thousands of feet above our heads, extending to the top of the atmosphere.

A weather balloon helps. Weather balloons are essentially atmospheric biopsies.

NWS weather balloon

NWS weather balloon

A weather balloon carries a parachute and a radiosonde on a cord about 30 m long. The parachute prevents the instruments from hurting anyone when the balloon bursts and falls. (NWS New York)

Technicians (usually meteorologists themselves!) attach a box full of instruments known as radiosondes to the bottom of a large balloon. They fill these balloons with helium or hydrogen and release them at set times throughout the day.

Thousands of weather balloons are launched every day around the world, with more than 100,000 launched annually here in North America alone. The information gathered by these radiosondes is critical to our understanding of the atmosphere.

READ MORE: Jet streams can bring wild winters and steamy summers to Canada

These instruments capture temperature, humidity and barometric pressure readings from the surface to the tropopause and beyond — far higher than commercial jets fly. Radiosondes even use GPS data to measure the speed and direction of the balloon’s movement, allowing meteorologists to calculate which way and how fast the wind is blowing.

This information gives us a complete picture of the weather through an entire portion of the atmosphere and provides invaluable insight into features such as troughs, ridges and upper-level jet streams.

WATCH: Epic journey: we attached cameras to a weather balloon

Click here to watch the video

Temperature and humidity data can help forecasters estimate whether a winter storm will produce rain, snow, sleet, or ice pellets. The same information is also useful for analyzing the magnitude of instability and wind shear at a given location, giving nearby cities a critical lead time before severe thunderstorms and tornado outbreaks.

Taken together, all of these routine weather balloon launches around the world fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, giving us a clear picture of what the weather is doing at each level of the atmosphere.

All of this information is fed into weather models to improve their own understanding of the current state of the atmosphere and provide meteorologists with clearer guidance to make more accurate forecasts.

They’re so helpful that meteorologists will be launching even more balloons ahead of high-impact systems like hurricanes, giving computer models an added edge in forecasting these dangerous storms.

Thumbnail courtesy of Kyle Brittain.


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