Video gives rare glimpse of weather balloon exploding 20 miles above Earth

·4 min read

Have you ever seen a weather balloon pop? Most people never will, because the balloons can rise upwards of 20 miles into the atmosphere. However, amateur astronomer Michael Riffle pointed his lens to the sky to allow others to see the impressive sight of a weather balloon's final moments.

As a weather balloon rises through the troposphere into the stratosphere, the air pressure around it decreases, causing the balloon to expand. When a balloon expands too much, the material that holds the helium or hydrogen inside reaches its breaking point, leading to a quick and dramatic pop.

Typically, nobody sees the balloon's burst, as it is out of the range of human sight. However, Riffle's unique camera shot shows exactly what happens to a balloon when it can no longer expand without exploding.

As the weather balloon shatters, pieces of the outer material shoot outward in all directions before succumbing to the effects of gravity. The pieces of the balloon, which can stretch to more than 20 feet wide before it pops, fall toward the Earth's surface in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The most critical part of the balloon is the radiosonde it carries. The radiosonde, which is responsible for collecting valuable weather data as the balloon rises, remains intact even after the balloon pops. A small orange parachute is attached to the radiosonde, allowing it to fall gently back to Earth where the instruments are sometimes collected and returned to be used in future launches.

Riffle first got the idea to track the balloons after he decided that he wanted to launch a weather balloon of his own for fun. He has built his own radiosonde tracker and records the bursts to learn more about how the radiosondes descend.

"I'm lucky that I live in an area where the radiosondes from NWS Birmingham and Atlanta land," Riffle said. "To date, there have been around 70 that have landed within 40 miles of me and I've been able to recover eight of them."

The weather balloon seen in the video was launched from the National Weather Service's Atlanta office. According to the National Weather Service, the balloons are launched twice a day from over 900 locations, gathering data on air pressure, temperature and relative humidity on its climb skyward. A single balloon launch costs about $200.

On their journey to the stratosphere, weather balloons often endure gnarly weather. The balloons, which are constructed with a biodegradable latex, can endure temperatures as cold as 139 F below zero, ice, rain, thunderstorms and wind speeds of almost 200 mph, according to the NWS.

"Upper-air observations from balloons, from radiosonde instruments attached to balloons, is really one of the best ways we have to get observations," Tom Bradshaw, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, Texas, told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell.

The balloons are an invaluable source of information for forecasters, who use the data in many ways. Computer forecast models integrate weather balloon data into their outputs, which meteorologists use to forecast the weather days in advance.

Weather balloon data can also help meteorologists predict some of the trickiest types of weather to forecast. Radiosonde measurements can help meteorologists peer into the atmosphere to see whether the environment will be conducive for strong thunderstorms to develop or whether snow, sleet, freezing rain or plain rain is likely to fall from the sky during a winter storm.

Auto launching technology is being deployed at NWS offices across the United States to improve the efficiency of the launch process, giving meteorologists more time to focus on writing forecasts rather than setting the balloons loose by hand.

"We will continue to have this radiosonde technology, this balloon technology for quite some time, but it will most likely be done automatically or autonomously without human beings directly having a role in it," Bradshaw said.

Additional reporting by Bill Wadell.

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