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Weather Balloons: A Look Inside Weather Data Collection

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Weather balloon Weather balloon
A radiosonde, a package of meteorological instruments and a radio transmitter, that is attached to weather balloons A radiosonde, a package of meteorological instruments and a radio transmitter, that is attached to weather balloons
Inside the National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va. Inside the National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va.

When you watch a weather forecast, the information seems simple and straight forward but the process of putting it together is complex.

NBC29 Meteorologist Clayton Stiver is taking you inside the process for collecting the data which helps determine the chance for rain, snow, winds and more.

Meteorologists need to look at many different types of data to determine your forecast. The National Weather Service (NWS) office outside Washington D.C. oversees many of the counties in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley by looking high into the sky.  

To make a forecast, they need to collect data in the upper levels of the atmosphere. The NWS uses weather balloons. The balloons are launched at different NWS offices around the country.

“Basically forecasters can see the atmosphere in a vertical level,” said Meteorologist Isha Renta. “There are many released around the nation. So right now there's one here, there's one in Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore. We can see you know how the vertical levels of the atmosphere are changing [by] comparing different balloons.” 

The balloons are launched twice a day to record all the changing conditions. A radiosonde - a small package of meteorological instruments and a radio transmitter - is attached to the balloon.  It records data and sends it back to the ground. 

“The instrument collects data of temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and wind direction,” said Renta. “It basically gives us those measurements every two seconds as it goes up in the air.”

Meteorologists can then look at weather conditions at all different levels of the atmosphere. “Basically the balloon will help us determine how unstable the atmosphere is, if we can expect hail, if we can expect thunderstorms, how severe are they going to be, and those types of details,” Renta said.

Once the weather balloon pops and falls back to earth, it contains instructions for whoever finds it to send it back to the National Weather Service, but that does not always happen. Renta says only 20 percent of the balloons released in the United States. are recovered.

The more data the computer models can ingest from the balloon launches, the better the chances are for the models to be accurate.

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