October 18, 2011

Winning Meteorological Roulette

 If you live or work in Mountlake Terrace please click here.

What is it like to win the jackpot in a meteorological roulette game?   It is having a radiosonde float into your yard after flying miles high in the atmosphere and being lauched many miles away.  David Stroble of Mt. Vernon found a parachute, a shredded balloon, and a radiosonde (they call it a microsonde) in his backyard on October 15th. You can see the proof in pictures below:

 Radiosondes are meteorological packages that report temperature, humidity, pressure and wind as they are lifted high in the atmosphere by a weather balloon.  According to the National Weather Service radiosondes can ascend to over 35 km (about 115,000 ft--23 miles) and can drift hundreds of km.  Temperatures can drop to as cold as -130F and flights can last two hours or more.  The balloon is about 6 ft in diameter when it starts, but expands to 20-25 ft before it bursts.

This radiosonde started at Quillayute on the WA coast around 3 AM on October 14th (it was the 12 GMT radiosonde).  As shown on this map, the route covered about 180 miles:

And here is a plot of the observations from the unit....check out the winds...they are consistent with the route--very strong from the westsouthwest aloft.

Each radiosonde unit comes with a prepaid mailer to send it back for refurbishment and release.  My colleagues in the NWS tell me only a small proportion of the 75000 units launched each year get returned (around 15%)...but the U.S. government saves money on every unit that gets mailed back.

So keep a good luck out for used radiosondes...I am told that finding one is more lucky than finding a four-leaf clover.

Holiday Gift News for Weather Lovers

Need a perfect holiday gift for the weather inclined?   Sure, you could get my Northwest weather book, but I have an even better idea--a Washington weather calendar!  This is a fund-raiser for the Seattle Student Chapter of the American Meteorological Society and all the profits support this good cause (KCPQ is a sponsor that is not getting any of the proceeds).  Cost:  $13.99.

Lots of nice pictures and packed with weather info.  To order try your local bookstore or calendar shops (including the UW Bookstore) or secure it online at http://weather-calendar.com/washington/


  1. That's awesome! One day, I hope to find one. Those are some very cool observations as well... you can very clearly see the tropopause at 200mb.

  2. Why not increase the findability of these after they land by adding an audible alarm and some flashing lights? Such a mechanism would only cost a few bucks, draw negligible current when the device is in operation, and can be timed to start alerting after its maximum expected time aloft.

  3. Question: How does the radiosonde measure winds? In my experience in hot air balloons, once off the ground there is no relative wind, as one is moving in and with the air mass.


  4. I've run across several over the years while hiking, but I have two experiences that are a little more "dynamic." One was while I was working as a met intern at Nome and was just finishing up analyzing the afternoon sounding (the old fashioned way, with pencil and straight edge)when in walks someone who had just found the very radiosonde whose data I was still entering into the computer! The battery was still warm! The other experience was while hiking in the Chugach Mountains near Anchorage and was startled by something coming down through the trees...yes, a radiosonde returning to earth! A one-in-a million kind of thing I would guess, at least in Alaska.

  5. Hi Cliff,

    It would be very exciting to find a radiosonde. I understand that many are lauched every day, which I think makes it surprising that I have never found one in my extensive travel in the mountains. But I have one possible objection: Don't those things amount to littering up the wilderness- potentially? I have found toy balloons- and the metallic mylar ones, which are an environmental no-no to release- as I understand. They don't decay. Another thing, if these weather balloons go to extreme height, isn't the equipment a hazard to commercial aircraft? They must be too small to see in advance when you are going 500 mph.


  6. Hi Cliff and fellow weather observers.
    I just wanted to remind folks of the NWS seasonal observance:
    "The week of October 16-22 is Winter Weather Awareness Week in the Pacific Northwest, including the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington."
    Their website has some interesting information for the public.

  7. Many years ago I (and my hiking companions) found a radiosond on the slopes of Stephen Peak in the Olympics. It was pretty exciting. One of our party sent it in when we returned and got a dollar in return!

  8. It is definately roulette, but you would say some areas are more prone to landings than others. Mt. Vernon is a good example. A certain distance with the average mean flow, direction etc.. A hot spot!

    I don't know anything about GPS tracking, but if they tag wild animals and whales with a little device, why not put them on radiosondies. You can have your weather students drive, hike around to find them. Perhaps receive some extra department grant money for the service too!

  9. How cool! What a once in a lifetime experience. I bet not too many people can claim that!

  10. Each radiosonde is equipped with GPS. This is used to compute the wind speed and direction. Using an assumed ascent rate (based on how much gas is in the balloon) and the latitude/longitude of 2 points, you can compute the wind in that layer.

    Very few of the radiosondes in the western US are found, for obvious reasons. But in the central US the return rates are a bit better. Midwest farmers find a good number of them.

    Smokejumper is correct that some locations are better than others for finding them. However, the winds aloft can be tricky. On occasion there are easterly winds in the Stratosphere that actually bring the balloon back near where it was launched.

  11. If they have a GPS and continue to transmit during their decent they should link up with Groundspeak and have a new type of geocache! I am guessing that radiosonde geocaching would be a huge hit. I know I would be looking to see if there were any local all the time.

  12. I found my first radiosonde back when the Weather Service was still ESSA. I was working in the Olympics east of Quillayute. It had tubes and a big battery.

  13. I know this is an old blog post, but it seems like the best spot to ask this question. I spotted and photographed a weather balloon over Pete Lake on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass over the weekend. I assume it must have been from Quillayute. Do you know of anyway to find weather balloon tracks?

  14. I'm writing a kids' book on weather balloons and I would love to use some of your images of the balloon on the ground. Are they available?


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

Superstorm and Superwaves Offshore

To get big waves, you need strong winds, you need the wind to be around for an extended period, and you want a long fetch over water to allo...