The Thing That Fell On Ray Gambardellas’s Roof

Inside a cardboard box that looks like it should be holding pork fried rice sits a Styrofoam case. The case holds the sensors and brains.

Ray Gambardella left a voicemail message for me this morning. He had something he thought would interest me. A weather balloon had come crashing down on his roof!

OK–maybe that’s a little overdone. It parachuted down. Ray still had to fetch it off the roof.

I picked it up this afternoon. It is a combination of new and old tech and it stunk of sulfur. More on that later.

Every day at 00Z and 12Z (corresponding to 8:00 PM and 8:00 AM EDT) weather stations around the world launch radiosondes. They are carried aloft by large helium balloons.

As the balloons go higher-and-higher the atmosphere around them becomes less dense. The balloon expands in size until finally it bursts! Those are the shredded remains of the balloon in the photo on the left.

I called the Weather Service Office in Albany where Ray’s balloon had been launched. The meteorologist there said the balloons typically went well above 50,000 ft. At that altitude 90% or more of the Earth’s atmosphere is below the balloon!

The science is contained in the more sophisticated instrument package that is tethered to the balloon. Ray’s was a Mark IIA Microsonde made by Lockheed Martin. Though Lockheed Martin is a major US defense contractor the sonde itself is assembled in Mexico.

Whether that should or shouldn’t irk me–it did.

Inside a cardboard box that looks like it should be holding pork fried rice sits a Styrofoam case. The case holds the sensors and brains. This radiosonde has instruments to measure temperature, moisture, pressure and ozone plus it can derive wind velocity and direction. The data plus GPS coordinates are transmitted back to ground via a radio data link.

Before the balloon is launched a wet cell battery gets filled with water. The chemical reaction that produces the battery’s electricity also produces the sulfuric stink that’s tough to miss as you approach the balloon.

The results of this upper air sounding are usually charted as a Skew-T Plot. As part of my meteorological training I used to do these by hand on a giant plastic sheet. They’re an excellent way to visualize the atmosphere above a singe point.

Though satellites and other remote sensing methods can probe the atmosphere upper air soundings from radiosondes continue to be used because they work! Their data is heavily integrated into the computer forecast models I often talk about on TV.

It’s amazing how much we owe to something that looks like it should be carrying Chinese food!

6 thoughts on “The Thing That Fell On Ray Gambardellas’s Roof”

  1. Hey Geoff,
    Saw you talking about this on the news last night. How many balloons do they release on a day/weekly basis? I am curious because this is the first time I have ever heard about these balloons, let alone anyone ever finding one. If you do find one…do they expect you to give back the container??

    1. Wikipedia says: Weather balloons are launched around the world for observations used to diagnose current conditions as well as by human forecasters and computer models for weather forecasting. About 800[1] locations around the globe do routine releases, twice daily, usually at 0000 UTC and 1200 UTC. Some facilities will also do occasional supplementary “special” releases when meteorologists determine there is a need for additional data between the 12 hour routine launches in which time much can change in the atmosphere. Military and civilian government meteorological agencies such as the National Weather Service in the US typically launch balloons, and by international agreements almost all the data is shared with all nations.

      There is a SASE provision. This may be too pranged to send back… and one of our engineers would like to perform an autopsy on it!

  2. Wikipedia: “It should also be noted that the average radiosonde is lost and never recovered.”

    Obviously launching these is important. I couldn’t find the cost of these particular units on the web. Probably don’t want to know.

  3. If I remember my days at the NWS correctly, these cost about $150ish each. If you find it, you can return it, but chances are it won’t be reused.

    Another note… if this was indeed from Albany, it wasn’t tracked by GPS. Albany (and Wallops island, I believe) are the only two locations in the U.S. that still use the old LORAN system to track their sondes ( Albany’s system is being upgraded as we speak, though, and within the next month or so should be up to date, technologically.

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