Twice a day, 365 days a year: Weather balloons help predict the weather

Published: Aug. 25, 2020 at 5:02 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The National Weather Service (NWS) uses weather balloons to help them paint a picture of weather in Alaska. The balloons are launched from automatic launchers, called autosondes, twice a day at 13 sites around the state. The stations use a hydrogen generator called a Hogen to separate hydrogen from water which is then used to fill the balloons.

“When it’s time to launch, the system automatically will draw the hydrogen over and fill the balloon up to its set volume, and when it is time to launch they give the green light, call the tower, press the button and there it goes,” said Keith Flewelling, a electronics technician for the NWS.

As the balloon rises into the upper atmosphere, a radiosonde -- a small set of weather instruments attached to the balloon -- collects data.

“As the balloon is flying it is collecting pressure, temperature, relative humidity and GPS data. That GPS data is then used to collect wind direction and speed. As that is happening, the data is actually plotted on chart which goes to the National Weather Service,” said NWS meteorologist Jonathan Chriest.

Eventually the balloon reaches around 20 miles high before it pops and falls back to earth. The balloon and radiosonde eventually decompose and disappear.

Chriest said the Weather Service makes a profile with the data, and “That profile helps us at the National Weather Service [to] forecast anything from thunderstorms, to inversions and air pollution.”

The NWS also uses the data to check if their weather models are accurate. The data is also posted to their website.

The autosonde in Fairbanks is special, Chriest said. “Fairbanks was the first weather forecast office in all the country to get an autosonde, and we got this in April of 2018.”

Not only did Fairbanks get the get the first autosonde, they also launched the first weather balloon.

“The U.S. National Weather Service, which was previously the Weather Bureau, has been launching balloons since the early 1930s. The first radiosonde that the Weather Bureau actually launched was right here in Fairbanks in 1933,” he said.

They began launching two balloons a day in 1941, and the technology has continued to develop. However, the importance and mission of the launches has stayed the same.

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