Weather balloons: Use and differences

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(ABC 6 News) – If there is one thing you can take comfort in knowing, It’s that real weather balloons are not going to spy on you while you’re shoveling snow.

Weather balloons are vital for forecasting, as they are used to measure conditions tens of thousands of feet up in the atmosphere, playing a major role in forecasting weather events.

Brent Hewett is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities. He understands just how vital “Weather balloons are, kind of the only way we can get ground-truth data in the upper atmosphere.”

Each balloon is hooked with what is called a radiosonde. This is an instrument that measures temperature, humidity, and wind speeds.

It has its own parachute so someone can go and collect the instrument. In recent years, though, data is processed practically in real-time.

The first big difference between a weather balloon and a spy balloon is how much shorter the flight time is for the weather balloon. Hewett notes the details. “Typical flight takes anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes, so an hour and a half to two hours. The balloon will burst. They will burst anywhere from 90,000 feet to 110,000 feet above the surface.”

That’s compared to multiple days for spy balloons. Weather balloons also don’t tend to travel beyond 200 miles from where they are launched, and are also much smaller in size, usually only about three feet in diameter when launched.

If there is one big thing that a weather balloon and a spy balloon have in common, they would not survive getting shot by an F-22 fighter jet.

While that Chinese Spy Balloon made headlines recently, seeing weather balloons in the sky is much more common. Ninety-two NWS offices in the US launch weather balloons twice a day at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Central Standard Time.