June 12

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by Hummer Storm Chaser

How We Get Forecasts

Richard Edgar NWS meteorologist with balloon sensor
Wichita National Weather Service NEXRAD
Wichita National Weather Service office

There are 150 radar stations in 120 weather service offices in the U.S., all run by the National Weather Service, which is a division of the Department of Commerce and was set up to prevent damage and disruption to business in the U.S.

Every day the NWS stations release two helium- or hydrogen-filled balloons into the sky, with a Styrofoam shoebox containing a transmitter and weather instruments. A good run is and hour-and-a-half to two hours, says Richard Elder, the meteorologist-in-charge at the Wichita NWS station.

The balloons rise to 120,000 feet, and send back data that is used to analyze what the atmosphere is doing. The balloons begin their ascent about five feet in diameter, and rise at a speed of about 12 mph, and then “get to about the size of a two-story house,” explains Elder. The thinner atmosphere causes the balloons to expand. Finally the balloon breaks and the Styrofoam box falls back to earth.

The sensor package costs about $80-120, and has a note on it to return it to the local NWS station. “About 30 percent get sent back to our reconditioning center. On the east coast, we never see them again.” Elder says most float out over the Atlantic ocean.

“On guy found one on his farm, and he called us to come pick it up,” Elder explains, adding that the nervous farmer thought it was dangerous because of the government stickers on it. “He knew it was something from the government, and he wouldn’t touch it.”

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