This is a Monstrous Balloon

People are still buzzing about the recent USA fly-by of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, which was shot down off the Carolina coast last weekend. Floating silently overhead, some 60,000 feet above the ground, the giant white 200-foot balloon dangling solar panels and other gear was first spotted over Montana, swept along by powerful jet stream winds in the upper atmosphere.

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Chinese authorities insist this was a harmless weather balloon, which - forgive me - is laughable. As a meteorologist I've dealt with weather balloons for nearly 50 years, and they look and function nothing like the image above.

File image: NOAA
File image: NOAA

This is a Tiny Balloon

Here is an example of a weather balloon used by local National Weather Service offices, including the office in Duluth. Weather balloons are released from nearly 900 locations worldwide, twice a day. A battery-powered "radiosonde" is attached to the balloon, measuring temperature, wind and humidity as the balloon rises nearly 100,000 feet into the sky, before expanding and popping, and landing 25-125 miles downwind, providing a 3-D  thumbprint of conditions overhead.

To be able to predict weather we need to know current conditions, and not just at ground-level. The atmosphere is nearly 12 miles thick and the weather models meteorologists use rely on a steady input of current data to simulate what comes next. Airport weather observations are great, but these twice-daily weather balloon launches from NOAA provide much of the essential data needed to run the models. Junk in - junk out. If you put low-octane (inaccurate) weather data into the models you'll get a very inaccurate forecast.

Diagram by osunpokeh (CC BY-SA 4.0 – No Changes Made)
Diagram by osunpokeh (CC BY-SA 4.0 – No Changes Made)

The diagram above does a brilliant job of showing just how big this Chinese spy balloon really is. Or was. The balloon was several orders of magnitude larger than the balloons used by the National Weather Service.

By the way, NOAA tries to recycle the weather balloons, which often wind up fields or trees. If you return it to the local National Weather Service office you get a dollar as a thank you for making the effort.

If skies are clear a 200-foot balloon will be pretty hard to miss, even floating by at 60,000 feet. A tiny weather balloon will be harder to spot as it's released at ground level and rises nearly 100,000 feet within an hour or so.

I really need to stop staring up at the sky. Not. Healthy.

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