Weather balloons provide data every day, everywhere


LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Monsoon or not, there’s a meteorological snapshot of our entire planet twice a day, every day.

That’s because an estimated 1,300 weather offices around the world — including our very own, in Las Vegas, release specially equipped balloons into the sky all at the same time, give or take a minute or two.

“Like I said, we put them up twice a day and they can travel up to 100,000 feet and be carried over a hundred miles,” said Alex Boothe, National Weather Service.

Those balloons have weather instruments. Booth demonstrates how they work.

“So, this is actually monitoring the temperature and then this instrument right here, this is what’s going to measure the humidity.”

Along with GPS tracking and a transmitter sending moment-by-moment data through the ever-changing multiple layers of the atmosphere back down to computers everywhere.

“We don’t just do it here,” he said. “We do it globally. People in Europe, they have balloons that they launch, too.”

Boothe describes some of the data the balloons provide.

“Couple things that we see out in the desert quite frequently, because it’s so hot near the surface, are lapse rates, which are the differences between one point in the atmosphere and another point in the atmosphere.”

Once the data box — officially known as a “radiosonde” — is good to go, it’s outside to put the balloon into what they call “the bucket,” a bracket with canvas flaps to keep it from flying away.

The 6-foot-plus-tall meteorologist held out an uninflated balloon to show that this is no small party balloon.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Alex Boothe shows Nate an uninflated weather balloon (KLAS-TV)

Boothe then clamped a helium hose to the balloon and started filling it, a process that takes about 10 minutes. That’s the time he uses to put all the pieces-parts of the launch together, tying the balloon to the parachute (so the box can float gently back to earth once the balloon pops), then attaching the radiosonde and making sure the 80-foot-long string isn’t tangled.

Meteorologist Alex Boothe prepares to release a weather balloon. (KLAS-TV)

But there’s one final crucial step.

Boothe picked up a red telephone that instantly rings in the control tower of nearby McCarran International Airport.

“Hey tower, this is weather. Just checking to see if it’d be alright for me to launch the balloon at 25 past.”

It’s good for pilots and air traffic controllers to know if there’s about to be an object rising into the atmosphere as planes are taking off and landing.

After wishing the balloon a good flight, Boothe lets it go.

Back indoors, the data literally stacks up into a picture of the atmosphere’s layers over Las Vegas, showing instantaneous updates on wind speeds, temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.

Meteorologist Alex Boothe from the National Weather Service discusses weather monitoring with 8 News Now anchor Nathan Tannenbaum. (KLAS-TV)

As for the balloon? It keeps stretching and stretching to almost the size of a building before the pressure’s just too much and it pops, with that parachute going into action.

Now, imagine that giant slice of data joining up with the information from those nearly 1,300 other balloons that were also launched all around the world, and you’ve got a global snapshot of the atmosphere.

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