ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Balloons have been popping up in the news lately as supposed spy balloons from China, and other unidentified flying objects have been spotted … and shot down.
While these may look very similar to the balloons that are launched by the National Weather Service, they certainly aren’t collecting the same type of data.
The NWS launches balloons at 92 stations across the United States twice every day to collect data within our atmosphere. While they may look like spy balloons, there are many important differences. One of them being that they are a lot smaller, and they are certainly not remote-controlled.
Each balloon is made of rubber and inflated with helium before launch. It gets inflated to about six feet wide, and then a device called a radiosonde is attached to the balloon. The radiosonde measures temperature, humidity, and pressure as it rises through the atmosphere while hanging off the bottom of the balloon. The balloon can expand to nearly 20 feet as it rises and the air pressure around it drops. As it moves with the wind, it changes location and tells the NWS about how the wind changes speed and direction above our heads.
According to the NWS, balloons can stay in the air for around two hours and drift over 100 miles away, while some balloons can rise over 20 miles before popping! Once they do pop, a parachute will allow for the equipment to float back to the ground. If you happen to come across one, it even comes with its own shipping label so you can send it back to the NWS.
Data collected with the radiosonde is used to help us analyze what the atmosphere is doing and it helps models get a more accurate picture of the atmosphere at any given place from top to bottom. This integral tool is just one of many that we use to collect data that helps to make your forecast more accurate.