Technology changes . . . but the weather balloons still fly

Technology changes . . . but the weather balloons still fly

By John Kanelis

Twice daily, the Amarillo office of the National Weather Service sends balloons high into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere.

The NWS staff has been doing it for decades. What has changed? How has technology affected the operation?

Plenty has changed and the changes have made the operation even better than before, according to Jose Garcia, chief meteorologist for the Amarillo NWS station.

Garcia came to Amarillo in 1991 to head up the NWS operation. The office is on U.S. Highway 60, just north of Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport. Garcia has been in the weather-forecasting business since 1982 after earning his atmospheric science degree from the University of Texas; he went on to earn a master's degree in public administration from Texas A&M University . . . making him half-Longhorn, half-Aggie.

The balloons are launched from a shed just outside the weather service office. They're filled with hydrogen, which Garcia admitted is a strange, given that "we're in the helium capital of the world."

Why hydrogen and not helium? "It's cheaper," Garcia said.
The balloons are made of a nylon compound. They lift off and head into the "top layer of our atmosphere," Garcia said. He said the balloons reach heights of "about 33,000 meters, or nearly 100,000 feet" before they burst.

The balloons are about 6 feet high and across when they lift off, but expand three to four times that size by the time they explode, Garcia said. He added -- with a chuckle -- that the size of the balloon makes it easy to spot from the ground even at such high altitude and that people occasionally call local authorities to report "seeing a UFO."

Technology has changed the way the NWS collects and process data sent from the balloons, Garcia explained. The NWS is able to process wind speed, direction, barometric pressure and with that data can provide short- and long-term forecasts, he said.

"We used to track wind speed using geometry," Garcia said. "Now it's done automatically."

One of the major technological changes lies in the size of the instrument attached to the balloons, he said.

"It's a lot smaller now," Garcia said. The current instrument is equipped with lithium-type batteries and weighs just a couple of pounds. The previous instrument was about three times larger and contained water-powered batteries, which made the device considerably heavier, according to Garcia.

The current device is tracked by global positioning systems, known commonly as GPS. "These GPS systems allow for more accurate information about wind direction, speed and barometric pressure as the instrument moves through the atmosphere," Garcia said.

Garcia said that the entire assembly -- which includes the balloon, the electronic device used to send data back to the station and the parachute that deploys once the balloon bursts -- costs about $350 apiece.

The NWS launches at least two balloons daily, 365 days a year, which costs about $255,500 annually, according to Garcia. "Some days we launch more than two balloons," he said, explaining that weather stations often will cooperate with other stations in the middle of inclement weather to help provide additional data to help colleagues report the consequences of the foul weather.

An example of that cooperation occurred prior to last week's blizzard along the east coast, Garcia said. "The weather service asked us to send up additional balloons to help forecast the weather they were having back east," he said.

"We also send up more balloons each day during convective season," Garcia said, explaining right away that "convective season" is weather-speak for "thunderstorm and tornado season."

"We're one of only 60 sites around the country" that sends up weather balloons daily, Garcia said. The nearest weather stations to Amarillo that deploy the balloons, he said, are in Midland, Albuquerque, Dodge City, Kan., and Norman, Oka.

Technological advances also have made it easier for forecasters to record the data they receive from the balloons. "Back in 1982, when I started out," Garcia said, "we had to mark off levels on the chart by hand. Now it's done by computer and it is much, much faster."

NewsChannel 10 chief meteorologist "Doppler Dave" Oliver said balloon technology improvements comprise "just one part" of the overall advances in weather forecasting. The more significant change, according to Oliver, has been in the growth of "computer power." Oliver said he is able to get and interpret "high resolution data much faster."
Forecasters used to track radio signals "manually," Oliver said, "and we didn't always have those signals. We had to track them kind of the way you do with a rifle scope."

Oliver, who's been forecasting the weather at NewsChannel 10 for 30 years, said the balloon technology gathers data that is developed immediately into computer models. "We gather it and assimilate into those models," Oliver said. "That gives us the real picture."

Garcia said he and his staff of 13 meteorologists are "able to read the data in real time," adding that "We are a 24/7 operation."

The balloons, working with Doppler radar, also help forecasters predict whether thunderstorms are "forming rotations." 

The NWS does not launch balloons during thunderstorms, as the atmosphere is too volatile and can send "contaminated" data back to the men and women on the ground. The storms also could put the launch crews in "some danger," he said.

As for what happens to the instruments that float back to Earth after the balloon bursts, the weather service gets about a 20- to 30-percent return. "We have to rely on folks out there to find them" up once they fall to Earth. "Once they recover the devices, they can send them to our reconditioning center in Kansas City (Mo.)." 

He called the rate of return "pretty good, actually."

The weather service attaches a self-addressed stamped envelope to each instrument. Whoever finds the device can put it into the envelope and send it to Kansas City, Garcia said, adding, "We try to make it easy."