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UND Atmospheric Sciences students receive hands-on experience with weather balloons

Balloons remain a critical component of how scientists observe and forecast weather. UND students receive hands-on experience in launching, tracking and monitoring data collection using this method, which dates back 80 years. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Not all Atmospheric Sciences students attending the University of North Dakota will pursue a meteorology career in which they’ll need to know how to launch weather balloon. But they’ll leave the university with hands-on experience of how it’s done and an understanding of the importance of the activity to weather forecasting.

“It’s the primary method used to get weather information,” explained Fred Remer, associate professor of atmospheric sciences in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “If we didn’t have these balloons, then we wouldn’t have forecasts. We wouldn’t know what’s going on in the atmosphere. Satellites would help us, but the balloons remain a critical component of our weather observing and forecasting method.”

UND sophomores in the meteorological instrumentation class and juniors in the atmospheric thermodynamics class learn about the importance of the data – both how it’s collected and how it’s used. They also receive hands-on experience in launching, tracking and monitoring data collection as a balloon is carried by winds aloft over hundreds of miles on flights lasting two hours or more.

“We feel that this is a great opportunity for the students to get experiential learning,” Remer said of the department-funded project that’s been occurring the past four years. “That’s why we’re one of the better programs in the area. Students are at the top of our list. We’ve got to provide them with a quality education.”

The antenna on top of Clifford Hall connects to the balloon’s attached radiosonde, which sends information to observing students and instructors. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

80 years of  balloons

The National Weather Service began launching balloons equipped with radiosonde instrument packages about 80 years ago to collect data that includes temperature, relative humidity and wind direction and speed. Today, data sent back to a ground station by radio and GPS provides a vertical profile of the atmosphere from the surface up to 110,000 feet or higher.

Although the technology has changed over the decades, the importance of the information hasn’t, which is why the NWS continues to launch more than 180 weather balloons a day from locations in every state of the nation. Worldwide, there are about 800 weather balloon launch sites. In North Dakota, the NWS office in Bismarck launches balloons each day at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

“If there’s a severe weather outbreak, they’ll send up an extra balloon launch around noon because it provides us with firsthand knowledge of what the atmosphere’s doing,” Remer said. “This our primary method for forecasting severe weather thunderstorms, tornadoes, large hail – all sorts of weather phenomena.”

A few weeks before the end of UND’s spring semester, graduate teaching assistant Mark Bresnahan went through the steps of launching a weather balloon with sophomores in the meteorological instrumentation class. The students did everything from registering the GPS launch coordinates to inflating the balloon with helium to attaching the radiosonde, launching it and then observing the incoming data from the sixth floor of Clifford Hall.

“We have an antenna on Clifford Hall that connects to the radiosonde,” Bresnahan said. “It sends information back to the antenna, which displays on our computer screen. We have students fill out the parameters for each pressure level.”

Though most meteorologists won’t launch weather balloons—or make thermometers out of glass tubes—on the job, UND students receive the ground-level experience that puts their knowledge into practice. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Firsthand experience

The class was a mix of students training to be pilots, meteorologists and air traffic controllers. Erin Doyle, Alexandria, Minn., who plans to pursue a career in meteorology, said, “Most meteorologists won’t launch weather balloons on a regular basis, but this shows us how the data is collected that we look at on computers to make forecasts. It’s just a good experience for that.”

Sam Peterson, North Branch, Minn., is in ROTC with the goal of becoming a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, a profession that will require him to deal with jet streams. “Knowing how it works and how the process is done really helps you understand how the data’s gathered and what’s actually going on in the atmosphere,” he explained. “Plus, if I can’t be a pilot, I can still have a really good career in the weather field.”

Anthony Harris, Roscoe, Ill., is pursuing a major in air traffic control and a minor in meteorology. His interest in weather started when he was 5 and watching Jim Cantore on the Weather Channel covering Hurricane Katrina.

“We get firsthand experience on launching a radiosonde and the entire process that goes with it,” he said. “You can immediately see the sky conditions and get a live readout of what’s going on, as opposed to sitting in class looking at a sample sheet that was taken probably decades ago. It’s phenomenal.”

As an air traffic controller, Harris will be required to monitor the weather, advising arriving and departing aircraft pilots about conditions on the runway, in holding patterns and on approaches.

“To be able to go to UND and have this as a minor, as well as air traffic control as a major, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said. “Having a broad knowledge and background in weather can make you a significantly better controller.”

Remer emphasized that there’s an ongoing need for meteorologists with a knowledge of weather balloons.  “This is one of those skills it helps to have when starting a job with the National Weather Service,” he stressed. “They will teach you how to do it, but for our students, it’s almost seamless. They fit right in because they’ve done it before and know what it’s all about.”