Local News

Weather balloons help Weather Service track storm fronts

SPOKANE, Wash. - Predicting the intensity of Friday's storm front wasn't easy; two different systems were bearing down on our area and pin-pointing where they would collide kept meteorologist at the National Weather Service very busy.

At the National Weather Service they've got Doppler radar and satellite imagery, but another valuable tool for predicting the storms is something they've been using since the 1930s. Twice a day, meteorologists probe the skies above Spokane with weather balloons.

The six foot balloons are filled with hydrogen and are still the best way to take the pulse of the upper atmosphere.

national weather service weather balloon

"Every day, twice a day from this location we send up a weather balloon," Dr. John Livingston with the National Weather Service.

Carried aloft in the balloon is an instrument called a radiosonde and once it's launched, it constantly sends back real-time information about the air above Spokane.

"It measures the temperature, the pressure the humidity and the winds from the surface up to 100, 000 feet," Livingston said.

All of that data can tell forecasters the state of the atmosphere and the potential for thunderstorms to develop, "especially the type of thunderstorms that are going to produce the heavy rains and the hail that we're anticipating," Livingston said.

Meteorologists say right now there's enough energy in the atmosphere to create damaging winds like we saw back in 1997 and the weather service wants to be able to give people enough warning so they don't find themselves in a dangerous situation.

"It's something we train for and it's something we really want to do a good job of trying to predict and then getting good information out there to people so they can anticipate what's coming and take action to protect themselves and their property," Livingston said.

On the other hand, the balloon's role in public safety is short-lived; 20 miles up it pops and the radiosonde parachutes back to the ground.

"It's our hope when folks find them that they'll follow the instructions on the package and put it in the mailer and give it to the postman," Livingston said.

The National Weather Service pays for the postage of getting those radiosondes back and that's important because sometimes the balloons launched here are carried by the winds and can land 200 miles away and quite often in Canada.