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Weather balloon launched during nor’easter blown right back

A weather balloon launched from the National Weather

A weather balloon launched from the National Weather Service's Upton office on March 13 floated back to the grounds of the Brookhaven National Lab. Credit: National Weather Service

It’s especially rare for meteorologists at the National Weather Service’s Upton office ever to set eyes again on the helium-filled weather balloons they launch twice a day — be it in rain, shine or anything in between, nor’easters included.

Yet, there it was Monday morning — the same balloon launched during last Tuesday’s nor’easter, returned to the weather service office, located at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

That was after the balloon’s adventure last Tuesday that found it ascending 17.7 miles into the atmosphere and being carried by winds around 10.5 miles northeast to Riverhead. Its cargo, a radiosonde measuring device, performed its data-gathering and transmitting duties throughout the ride.

“How cool is this,” the weather service tweeted Monday, going on to describe the balloon’s journey, its bursting near Riverhead and then return trip via the storm’s fast-moving winds to Upton.

That’s where it was spotted by solar farm employees who work nearby, also on site at Brookhaven Lab — they returned it Monday to the people who had launched it.

Upton is one of 92 locations in North America and the Pacific islands — with hundreds worldwide — that conduct two balloon launches a day every day of the year, according to the weather service’s site.

The launches are done simultaneously, the weather service said, and provide “a snapshot of the earth’s three-dimensional atmospheric conditions.”

According to meteorologist David Stark, an estimated 95 percent of the Upton-launched balloons, tasked with whisking radiosonde devices into the upper atmosphere, end up dropping into the North Atlantic Ocean and are never recovered.

Following its flight and return to earth, last week’s radiosonde “instrument is in perfect condition,” said Carlie Buccola, a weather service meteorologist, pointing to a likely light landing thanks to a small attached parachute, as well as that softer bed of snow.

She said she’s heard of occasions “when we have high pressure and very light wind,” leading the balloon to rise and then come right back down in the same vicinity.

That’s a scenario more likely in summer, when winds are weaker, said Stark, who recalled three or so radiosonde returns after they landed on the Island, one actually in a South Shore bay and returned by a boater.

Still, “it’s very rare,” he said.

Last week’s deflated balloon and device, equipped with GPS, were drifting “slowly back toward earth,” Stark said, when they would have been picked up and delivered back to Upton by the storm’s strong low-level wind flow from the northeast.

“It’s always nice,” he said, to see something “come full circle,” especially given the significant role such launches play in gathering data — temperature, relative humidity, pressure, wind speed — which are vetted and then fed into computer forecasting models.

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