Atmospheric science students launch weather balloon

Each time we pull up a weather app on our phones or listen to the morning forecast on the radio, we’re getting a forecast influenced by the data gathered by weather balloons.

On May 1, students in UW-Milwaukee’s atmospheric science program gathered to watch one such balloon make its trip into the atmosphere.

The event was a “Radiosonde Roadshow” put on by Vaisala, a private company that sells weather-related instruments. These community demonstrations allow students on college campuses across the country to observe and learn about different aspects of meteorological equipment, and especially gear that might be prohibitively expensive to showcase otherwise.

Several people stand outside watching a man holding a balloon aloft.
Alex Moxon, a junior majoring in atmospheric science, holds the weather balloon just before it is launched. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

“This is a great opportunity to have students engage with these instruments and data collection. One of the values of this is being able to expose the students to a different part of the field than we can show them,” said Clark Evans, an associate professor and the head of UWM’s atmospheric science program.

Before the launch, Vaisala representatives Chris Vagasky and Frank DeFina talked with students about career paths in the meteorology industry.

As they gathered in a field near the campus’ science buildings, students watched as Vagasky filled a white rubber balloon with 500 grams of helium, inflating it to around four feet in diameter. Vagasky weighs 145 pounds; it would take just 17 balloons to lift him off the ground, he said.

Attached to the end on a long string was a radiosonde, an instrument package that collects and transmits atmospheric data – things like temperature, wind speed, wind direction and humidity. That data helps scientists plan their forecasts.

When the balloon launched, it quickly disappeared into the cloudy sky, where the radiosonde began transmitting data. The balloons can reach heights of six to 10 miles into the atmosphere, before the change in air pressure causes them to burst and the radiosonde to plummet to the ground.

Hands-on experience

For many students, it was the first time they had seen such a critical piece of meteorological science. Junior Alex Moxon, who is majoring in atmospheric science, was invited to hold the balloon in preparation of its launch.

“It’s such a great experience to be here and be able to start collecting the data that I’ll be using, and maybe even collecting someday, on an everyday basis,” he said. “It’s a very rare opportunity to see a weather balloon launch by the people who make them.”

Vaisala is based in Helsinki, Finland, and manufacturers all sorts of atmospheric monitoring equipment. It’s important to be a good community partner, said DeFina, Vaisala’s sales manager of weather sales.

“These are our future meteorologists and the future of forecasting,” he said, surveying the crowd of UWM students. “For me, it’s all about education. We believe in a world where observation improves the daily lives of all citizens. When that weather forecast shows up on peoples’ phones, this is where it all starts.”

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