Baton Rouge, Louisiana
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Weather Balloons

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SLIDELL, La. - Today's meteorologists work with a lot of advanced technology. That includes automated weather observing stations, doppler radar, satellites, computer models, hurricane hunting aircraft, but even today we still use 100-year-old technology, and it's no "throwback."

"You can go way back in time to the 1930's and 1940's and if you think about before we had the radar before we had the satellite, this was the way to get information way up in the atmosphere and we've been doing this for 60 and 70 years," said Ken Graham, Meteorologist In Charge at the National Weather Service office in Slidell.

First used regularly in the 1930's, the simple weather balloon still serves an integral purpose today. An enormous amount of data is taken from the weather balloons, and with it, forecasters can create the plethora of maps used in forecasting, either by computer, or even "old-school" hand analysis.

"There's a small radiosonde, that's what we call it, it's just a small instrument package that we tie with a string onto the balloon and it's got sensors on board. The return is huge because all the data, that goes into the model, that's what we're making the hurricane forecasts with. That's what we're making our cold front, warm front, all the forecasts are based on those models, which the balloon feeds those models. The effort to launch a couple balloons a day is nothing compared to the return on investment for the country when it comes to the weather models," said Graham.

Twice a day, all across the world, balloons are released at the exact same time.

"If you think about all the balloons going up all over the world, a way to look at that is a cat scan of the atmosphere across our entire planet Earth. We look up when it comes to weather forecasting, it's not just looking right here at the surface," said Graham.

These balloons have been known to travel as far as only a few miles from the launch point, or miles away across Alabama, or even out in the Gulf. Once it gets high enough, the balloon is the size of a story and a half building before it bursts and falls back to earth.

"The parachute opens up and it comes back to Earth. It says very clearly that this is a weather instrument, it's nothing strange. There's actually a little cylinder at the bottom of the instrument. Pull the bag out, it says return to sender, it has our address on it. Put the instrumentation on there, we'll get it back and we'll try to reuse it," said Graham.



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