National Weather Service relies on balloons for forecasting

Posted at 6:37 PM, May 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-19 18:37:47-04

In today's world of weather forecasting there are several ways you can get weather information. Many of us rely on weather apps, TV or the web but despite this variation, every forecast relies on the same weather data. Today's meteorologists use a combination of radar satellites and computer models to create a forecast - but after all these years the seemingly simple weather balloon plays a vital role in learning with the atmospheres up to.

These Balloons are so important that despite the weather conditions the National Weather Service (NWS) will release them twice a day as a part of the daily forecast routine & Meteorologist like Dan Hoffman feel the data they provide is irreplaceable.

"The weather balloon goes all way up to about hundred thousand feet and it looks at things like temperature, humidity, pressure and wind data through the entire layer of the atmosphere and it's measuring with precision what we can't get from satellites, at least yet," said NWS meteorologist Dan Hofmann.

He says this can make or break a forecast especially when it involves severe or winter weather events.

"A satellite can tell you it's about 75° but the weather balloon instrument will tell you it’s 75.28 and it’s just that little extra precision that does make a big difference in the borderline weather setups like freezing rain for example," Hofmann said. 

Unlike the heated air used in hot air balloons or helium used in others. The NWS uses hydrogen. This gas is just as effective as helium since it's much lighter than air, but it does have a few drawbacks.

"There's a safety component with hydrogen, so we have a lot of safety procedures we have to follow," he said "We can’t have things like cell phones in the building when the balloon is inflating because the interference of the cell phone signal between the inflation mechanism can sometimes create static electricity and that could be a danger."

It’s so dangerous in fact, ceramic scissors are used to avoid static electricity when cuts are being made during balloon preparation. So what makes Hydrogen worth all the trouble? Hofmann says in addition to a helium shortage, hydrogen is substantially cheaper.

"From what I understand hydrogen is about seven times cheaper than helium gas and since we're doing this twice a day with 92 operator sites - just in the weather service across the country so it’s a  cost component that really what drives it’s use," he said.

To make sure the gas flows safely Hofmann follows several safety protocols, which include a series of switches and shut off valves. Once the safety checks are done - it's time to get started. He grabs the balloon, parachute and the Radiosonde, the device attached to the balloon, which actually makes the atmospheric measurements. With the balloon secure the hydrogen gas flows. He pairs the Radiosonde and parachute to the balloon while it inflates. The parachute will make sure the device has a safe return back to the ground after the balloon pops in the upper atmosphere. After it's ready, it's time to calibrate the Radiosonde by placing it outside. Dan uses a computer to make sure it's working properly and once it's verified to be responsive, he'll make a quick call to the airport and then it's time to launch it.

The balloon starts its journey to the top of the atmosphere and it collects valuable data on its way. Before it pops, it’ll be as large as a two car garage and the data it collects will be used in every forecast around the world, proving this technology is still useful today.

"I think weather balloons will still be around for at least another five or 10 years. The method by which we release them may change a little bit, but I don't see them going away anytime in the immediate future," Hofmann said.