65 years of weather balloon launches in the Heart of Illinois

Original air-date: 9/10/2021
Published: Nov. 8, 2021 at 3:26 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Ill. (Heart of Illinois ABC) - The field of meteorology has seen significant advancement over the decades but one tried and true method remains virtually unchanged: the weather balloon. Now the device and data gathering equipment have changed over the years but that humble balloon has stayed the same and Central Illinois has had a steady flow of upper-air data for 65 years.

On September 12, 1956, the first daily weather balloon was launched in Peoria. Since then the Peoria National Weather Service has closed and moved to Lincoln, with it the history of those previous launches. The NWS Lincoln still does this important work every day.

Chris Geelhart is a Senior Meteorologist at the NWS Lincoln Office and this morning he launched the first of what will be two weather balloons. “One of the keys of weather models is to have actual observations of what’s happening in the atmosphere, both at the surface and aloft several dozen stations around the country that will launch these things. A couple of times a day at least is active weather if there’s a hurricane coming we may be asked to do it more frequently.” Said Geelhart about the importance of the data that is gathered.

As mentioned, if there is severe weather on the horizon, the office may launch more than two. The Lincoln Office was asked to do a few special launches during the forecasting of Hurricane Ida.

The devices attached to the balloons are called radiosondes and as they travel up into the atmosphere they record the temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and a GPS can record the speed of the wind. The information is then sent back to the Forecast Office and ingested.

After traveling into the atmosphere and reaching a height of about 100,000 feet, the balloon usually will burst due to the low amount of air pressure and the device then comes back to earth. A parachute aids in making sure the device makes it to the surface safely, most of the time.

“Usually if you find one of the instrument packages on the handle there should be a postage-paid mailing bag that you could just cut off the strings from the balloon you throw away the balloon but cut off the strings and then put the instrument package inside the bag and mail it back to our reconditioning center, and that’ll help us reuse some of the parts of it for future radiosonde launches. Said Geelhart. These devices can travel hundreds of miles away from the launch site. The NWS Lincoln has documented one of their devices being found at the Indianapolis airport.

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