Have you ever seen a weather balloon? If you were looking for one, you might not even know what to look for. While most people have heard of weather balloons, the extent of what they do is not widely known.
Weather balloons have been used for well over a century to provide valuable data regarding the weather. During this time, weather balloon technology has evolved, providing more information and allowing meteorologists to conduct a more accurate analysis of weather patterns.
Within the United States alone, more than 67,160 weather balloons are released each year! So, how do they work and why are they so important?
How do weather balloons work?
Weather balloons resemble regular balloons in many ways, except that they can be up to eight feet in diameter and are composed of durable latex. They measure and monitor a range of variables, including temperature, pressure, and humidity, and relay that data to meteorologists, who can analyze it to make educated predictions and weather forecasts.
The balloon is filled with either helium or hydrogen, which sends it high up into the stratosphere. Some reach heights of 100,000 feet within an hour. The balloon itself doesn’t monitor the weather conditions—it’s the equipment it is carrying that does the work. A pressure sensor and radiosonde will track atmospheric pressure, temperatures, and other variables and send the information back down to earth.
The balloon will continue to rise until the pressure becomes so low that the balloon pops. Once the balloon pops, the equipment than falls back to earth with a mini parachute. Ideally, they retrieve the equipment once it lands because it’s quite costly. That said, only about a quarter of the pressure sensors and radiosondes get recovered.
The importance of weather balloons
You might be wondering why today, with all the technology we have access too, weather balloons are still a primary source of data regarding the weather.
Surely there must be a more advanced method for monitoring weather and pressure changes. The reality is that weather balloons are still the most effective way for meteorologists to predict storms, make forecasts, and collect data for long-term research.
Satellites are effective at forecasting storms and hurricanes based on visual elements, such as cloud systems, as they move across the sky. That said, satellites are unable to take any direct measurements. Instead, they take pictures, and scientists can estimate the other variables such as humidity, wind speed, etc. by using equations.
Estimations are not always accurate, so weather balloons are crucial in order to determine precise figures. Data obtained by the weather balloon is then calibrated with the satellite images to make more accurate predictions and forecasts.
Accurate weather predictions are about more than deciding whether you can go to the beach the next day. They can help areas prepare for hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and other extreme weather events in order to reduce the negative impacts on communities. There is the potential to save lives through these predictions, and weather balloons play an integral role in this.