What started 150 years ago with 25 stationary observation sites, synchronized weather reports have evolved into a fundamental tool for meteorologists and forecast models.

Introduction: Weather balloons

Over the past 80 years, weather balloons have been used to gather data to help forecasters get a better idea of the state of the atmosphere in the upper levels (22 miles up!). Launched twice a day at 92 stations across the U.S., these weather balloons are equipped with instruments that track humidity (dew point), air pressure, wind (speed & direction) and temperature.

Here’s an in-depth look at how these balloons operate, why they’re important and how they’re released.

From manual to automated

In May 2018, the National Weather Service piloted an initiative to install automated weather balloon launch systems. The switch to automation was said to save time, cut down on cost, allow for operation in a wide range of climates as well as improve data availability and quality. It would also improve the longevity of NWS employees, allowing the system to run on ‘auto-pilot’ instead of having to rely on the manpower of a few staff members in isolated areas to manually launch these balloons.

The first systems were installed in Alaska in order to test the system’s ability to operate in harsh conditions. After two years of field testing, the project began to expand.

Earlier this year, Central Texas’ National Weather Service office transitioned from human-launched weather balloons to automation at their launch site in Del Rio. Check out the video below:

FUN FACT: the NWS Austin/San Antonio office was the first site in the continental U.S. to get the automated system, followed by NWS San Diego and NWS Bay Area.

So how long can these automated sites operate on their own? Each system can hold up to 24 balloons, meaning they’ll be able to run for 12 days (2 balloon launches per day) before needing a restock.

Just another advancement in forecasting technology in an effort to improve prediction accuracy.

For more information, visit the NWS Austin/San Antonio website or NOAA’s News page.