Up, up, & away!! What is a weather balloon?

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“The parachute is attached, the radiosonde is hooked up and ready to go, we’re about to launch this large weather balloon into the atmosphere to get upper air data” Meteorologist Elisa Raffa, KCAU9 News.

Up, up, and away… It’s not a bird, it’s not a plane…It’s a weather balloon!

The atmosphere doesn’t just sit at the surface, it goes up hundreds of thousands of feet and what’s way up in the air affects what’s happening down here. So yes, to monitor what’s going on in the sky and to better understand the weather, we slap a balloon to a computer called a radiosonde and send it for a ride.

The balloon is made of latex, and filled with hydrogen. A parachute is attached to help ease its fall. The balloon rises about 100,000 feet into the atmosphere, that’s three times higher than an airplane….and grows to the size of a single car garage! The balloon is in flight for about an hour an a half until it bursts when it hits very low pressure, and falls back to Earth. 

“The instrument says harmless weather instrument, so if people find it, they aren’t afraid of it  because you just never know these days what’s out there! There’s a note that says they can mail it back if they want and then there’s a bag in there with postage paid so they can just drop it in the mail” says Becky Kern, NWS Omaha Meteorologist.

About 20% of the radiosondes get mailed back to weather service offices.
Balloons are launched twice a day at the same time, not only at weather offices across the country, but around the world.
“And now the weather service meteorologists can track all that data right here! Temperature, pressure, relative humidity…all as that balloon is rising in the atmosphere” says Meteorologist Elisa Raffa, KCAU9 News.
“This is our key, this is our window to what the atmosphere holds. And so with the models starting out with this data and projecting it into the future, we can tell what kind of conditions we are going to expect” says Becky Kern, NWS Omaha Meteorologist.
That’s right! These weather balloons, a technology established back in 1937 on the cusp of World War II, is the first step to running our computer models, or data that helps meteorologists write up the forecast. 
These balloons become especially crucial during severe weather because winds up in the atmosphere create hail, their rotation spins tornadoes, and high levels of moisture provoke flash flooding.
“This can save lives, this is how we plan our day, how we staff. This is how others around the country, or the world even, look at our data and help research to make our science more accurate. We’re always trying to get better, It helps lead time, it might give a forecaster an idea of ‘hey, there’s a lot of shear we can spin up a tornado very quickly'” says Becky Kern, NWS Omaha Meteorologist.
Lead time… That’s the time meteorologists are able to give people as warning before a strong storm or tornado hits…that’s the time that saves lives. 
Technology like this weather balloon, while it may seem archaic, helps meteorologists gain the information they need, to give you the information you need.

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