On July 2, 1982, pilots of several flights descending into Los Angeles International Airport spotted an unidentified flying object in the sky. Several captains radioed to the airport tower to report the situation. Based on the pilots’ accounts, tower staff initially determined that the unidentified object appeared to be a figure in an aluminum lawn chair with what appeared to be a shotgun in his hand. The strange man and his chair were suspended from a series of large balloons and were flying at an altitude of about 5,000 meters.
Police later identified the “weirdo” as Larry Walters. When questioned by police, he told how he took off and flew for 45 minutes using 43 helium-filled weather balloons. Larry wanted to be a pilot, but his vision problems prevented him from realizing his dream, but he still wanted to fly. In 1982, he bought 45 weather balloons (each of which expands to 2.4m in diameter, two of which burst in the process) and helium tanks, and carried out the stunt on July 2nd. In the end, he was charged by local prosecutors with endangering airport airspace and fined $1,500.
How weather balloons work
Because of its low cost, simple structure and convenient use, balloons are widely used in high altitude observation and meteorological sounding. The sounding balloons in weather balloons, for example, can fly in the atmosphere for about two hours, covering a total distance of about 200 kilometers, and can climb up to 30,000 meters into the atmosphere. Sounding balloons are made of latex or neoprene and are generally 2 meters in diameter when released from the ground. With the gradual rise of the sounding balloon and the gradual decrease of the external pressure, the sounding balloon also becomes bigger and bigger, the largest can be expanded to 8 meters in diameter, and finally the sounding balloon bursts and falls. The radiosonde below the balloon sends back information about temperature, humidity and air pressure every one to two seconds as it floats. Ground-based workers measure the elevation Angle of the sounding balloon through the total station and convert it into information such as wind direction and speed. They can also track the sounding balloon with radar to calculate the wind speed and direction.
The pioneers of weather balloons
It was a British man named Jeffreys who first came up with the idea of using balloons to observe the atmosphere. In 1785, he attempted to cross the English Channel in the hot air balloon of Blanchard, a French balloonist. In the air, Jeffries helped Blanchard watch the weather and record the upper atmosphere. However, the balloon failed to reach high altitude and nearly crashed into the English Channel. To lighten the load, Jeffries had to dump a lot of the equipment he was carrying. Perhaps inspired by this, in the years from 1896, French meteorologist Bohr launched hundreds of weather balloons strapped to instruments, experiments that helped him discover the tropopause and stratosphere.
Weather balloons should also be classified
According to the materials and uses, weather balloons can be roughly divided into the following categories:
The purpose of the balloon is to measure the wind direction and speed in the upper atmosphere. The skin of the balloon usually weighs only 30 grams, so these balloons are called “balls”. Once the balloon was airborne, ground observers kept track of it with a wind theodolite, recording the elevation and azimuth of the balloon every minute, and calculating the wind direction and speed of the balloon at different altitudes.
As the name suggests, tethered balloons are anchored to the ground by cables. They can stay at a specific altitude for a long time, up to several months at a time. They are often used for atmospheric and environmental monitoring.
Sounding balloons usually weigh 0.8 ~ 2kg in the shell, can carry 1kg of instruments and equipment, lift off at a vertical speed of 5 ~ 6 meters per second, and reach a maximum altitude of 30 kilometers. They are used for daily aerial observation.
Stratospheric balloon Stratospheric balloon can complete 20 ~ 40 km or higher atmospheric region of high altitude exploration mission, its role includes measuring and recording meteorological elements, atmospheric composition, atmospheric electricity, atmospheric ozone, solar radiation, verify the pressure height formula…… Stratospheric balloons have a volume of 100,000 to 300,000 cubic meters or more, and can carry 100 to 150 kilograms of instruments when filled with hydrogen.
Weather balloons play an important role
Today, weather balloons help us do most of our high-altitude observations, with more than 900 weather stations around the world relying on them for data (twice a day).
The difference in weather conditions between the lower and upper atmospheres is the difference between clouds and mud. It may be calm at sea level, but a storm could be brewing in the upper atmosphere more than 5,000 metres above the same ocean. Weather balloons are released regularly to detect changes in the upper atmosphere. More than a century ago, meteorologists could only predict the weather within a few hours, based on observations from the ground. Today, with the help of weather balloons, meteorologists can predict what the weather will be like days from now.
Data collected by weather balloons can be used for disaster warnings such as mountain floods
These predictions do more than just reduce the chances of people getting caught in the rain on their commute. Upper-atmosphere data also play an important role in warning of potential meteorological disasters, such as tornadoes, thunderstorms or flash floods. With the help of weather balloons, authorities can dispatch supplies and rescue workers to disaster areas hours before these disasters occur.
It can detect solar wind, asteroid dust and cosmic rays
NASA launched six weather balloons in May and June 2021 to soar 100 to 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface into the upper atmosphere, where Earth’s atmosphere touches space. The solar wind (a continuous stream of charged particles) from the sun sweeps past the Earth for more than 6 billion kilometers. Sudden bursts of solar wind can cause beautiful auroras on Earth, but they can also disrupt radio transmissions and GPS signals, threaten satellites and disrupt power grids on the ground.
Most solar wind particles move slowly, and even the fastest are deflected off the Earth’s surface by the Earth’s magnetic field. Earth’s magnetic field acts as a barrier, preventing charged particles in the solar wind from hitting the planet. However, while most of the Earth’s magnetic field is closed, there are a few open areas that provide a pathway for solar wind particles to reach the Earth’s surface. Using weather balloons, scientists can find the outer boundary of the Earth’s magnetic field by watching how solar wind particles enter it.
NASA also regularly uses weather balloons for near-space experiments: during meteor showers, weather balloons can collect dust from asteroids passing near Earth; Some weather balloons can also be used to detect cosmic rays.
Releasing 1.4 million balloons is serious
The number and frequency of weather balloon launches are strictly limited because of the trouble they cause. In 1986, Cleveland, Ohio, hosted an unprecedented balloon launch. 1.4 million multicolored balloons were released to the excited shouts and cheers of the surrounding crowd.
Many balloons flew very far in the wind. A runway at Lake Burke Airport was closed for half an hour because of the balloon. Several highway crashes were also caused by the balloons – with some drivers taking their eyes off the road as they stared at the rare spectacle in the sky… Other balloons floated onto the racecourse, causing horses to run in fright and injuring some. Most tragically, two fishermen went missing on Lake Erie on the day of the balloon launch. Although the rescue helicopter spotted the boat in time, the pilot was unable to spot the fishermen in time because his view was obstructed by the balloon on the lake. Several days later, the bodies of the two fishermen were found on the shore.