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March 30, 2011 / Dave Gorham

Seen Over Houston: That Ain't No Blimp

Was it really 18 months ago that the balloon boy hoax captured the world’s attention? Since then, any balloon floating high in the sky has had more than a few eyeballs focused on it. And really, since 9/11 do any of us actually ignore anything in the sky any more?

The MetLife blimp has been floating around Houston over the past week or so, but this is not what lifted off from the University of Houston campus yesterday.

Over Houston yesterday I’m sure many eyes strained skyward as a somewhat large weather balloon lifted off from the University of Houston campus on the southwest edge of downtown. Mixed in amongst helicopters, commercial airliners* outbound from Hobby Airport and the migratory birds returning from wintering south of the border, a scientific payload of weather instruments lifted from the grassy fields of the U. of H. campus to eventually reach upwards of 45,000 feet (specialized high-altitude weather balloons can reach 120,000 feet).

Weather balloons like this one can top 50,000 feet. Photo: Wikipedia

Not that this type of balloon is specifically unique to Houston, but it’s certainly not status quo around these parts. Weather balloons like this are launched by the National Weather Service twice a day at more than 90 stations across North America and some Pacific islands (more than 800 balloons are launched globally twice daily by governments of various countries), but the closest regular launch site to Houston is Corpus Christi well to the southwest and Lake Charles well to the east. Why such a large gap in coverage? It simply boils down to funding or, more accurately, the lack of funding.

Launch sites are scattered across the country more or less evenly, but if you look at all the locations you can tell the layout is skewed toward populated regions; more launch sites east of the Mississippi River and fewer west of the Mississippi. Still, there remains a large gap in Texas and that leaves one of the largest population centers in this country hanging in the balance.

Perhaps I’m jumping ahead of myself — launching the weather balloon before filling it with helium, as it were. To understand why a large coverage gap is curious, it’s best to understand what this scientific payload is designed to measure and what the resulting data are used for. Weather balloons would certainly measure “weather” data, but specifically this payload measures temperature, humidity and wind (both direction and speed) at a variety of different altitudes while ascending — all key ingredients whose varied combinations are responsible for everything from sunny skies to tornadoes, to understanding sleet vs. snow, to even forecasting the track of a hurricane. Serious stuff, no doubt. And if it’s this critical, why then is there such a large coverage gap between Corpus and Lake Charles — a distance of more than 350 miles — with Houston nearly right in the middle of the void?

Launch sites across the United States. Notice distribution is not quite even, with more eastern sites than western. Image: Wikipedia

Ours is not to wonder why, as the saying goes. Ours is to do something about it. And so in partnership with the University of Houston, ImpactWeather took on the costs of not only yesterday’s launch but, in a pilot program, four future launches. This will not only help shed light on the critical coverage gap but also bring the nuts and bolts of severe weather to the hands (and computers) of ImpactWeather meteorologists and U. of H. students. And U. of H. students who are working at ImpactWeather.

Enter University of Houston undergraduate student and part-time ImpactWeather employee Matt Haworth. Matt is majoring in atmospheric sciences and stood at the controls yesterday. He was directly responsible for not only launching the balloon but receiving the data, formatting it and then passing it on to the operational mets at ImpactWeather. Matt has more than 100 launches to his credit.

Matt has launched many balloons and hopes his career keeps him close to this aspect of meteorology. Yesterday's launch used a 100g balloon filled with 600g of helium similar to the one in this photo. Photo: Matt Haworth

With the pilot launch program consisting of just five launches, you might wonder why yesterday was chosen as the first. True, weather data gathered from this type of launch are the impetus for every forecast around the world, but some forecasts are more tricky and some more critical than others. With severe weather possible earlier today, getting a handle on the upper air data directly over Houston — with enough time to issue forecasts and weather alerts to our clients — is key to producing the most accurate severe weather forecast. Not only does this type of data help answer the questions of “if” and “when,” but it also helps to quantify such features as rainfall (how much), downburst winds (how strong), hail (how big) and tornadoes (yes/no).

Using data transmitted from the instruments attached to the weather balloon, the Skew-T diagram plots the dewpoint trace (dashed line, left) the temperature trace (solid line, center) and the winds (right) with altitude. Image: NOAA

Will this pilot program lead to a permanent launch site near Houston? We can only guess — and hope. We’re dealing with the government, after all! However, with more than six million people now residing in the metropolitan area of the fourth largest city in the United States and (if experts are correct) a population that is expected to more than double in the next 25 years, having such a critical forecasting tool directly effecting such a large population center would certainly make sense on many levels, not the least of which is public safety.

Unrelated to yesterday’s launch, I’ve been working on an article for YourWeatherBlog celebrating the weather balloon, in use now for more than 60 years. I’ll be posting that in the near future.

Update from Matt:  The University of Houston will be launching 70 balloons later this spring and summer from southern Oklahoma, Dallas, and Houston along with the special launches we will be doing in order to support operations.

* Launch Control notified the F.A.A. within 30 minutes of the impending launch and all air traffic was informed of the balloon and launch status.

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