Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Episode 532 (7-6-20): Weather Balloons are a Time-tested Tool Launched Twice Daily

Click to listen to episode (5:38)

Sections below are the following:

Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 7-3-20.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of July 6, 2020.  This is a revised version of an episode from March 2013.

MUSIC – ~12 sec - instrumental
This week, that excerpt of “Buy For Me The Rain,” performed by the Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand Band, opens an episode about a long-used and still vital tool for monitoring the atmospheric conditions related to rain and any other kind of weather.  We start with a series of mystery sounds.  Have a listen for about 20 seconds, and see if you know what time-tested measuring tool is being launched.

SOUNDS PLUS GUEST VOICE - ~18 sec - ‘There’s our parachute [and] our balloon; and we’re gonna head outside….  And there goes our balloon, and our sonde, on the way up [into] the stratosphere….  Do we still have the signal?  Yes.”

If you guessed a weather balloon, you’re right!  Twice each day, over 90 National Weather Service locations launch weather balloons carrying a radiosonde, a package of instruments to measure and transmit data on the upper atmosphere’s temperature, pressure, humidity, and winds.  The Weather Service has making upper air measurements with balloons and radiosondes since the 1930s.  The sounds you heard were from the 6 p.m. launch on February 28, 2013, at the Weather Service’s forecast office in Blacksburg, Virginia.  To learn a bit more about weather balloons and their importance, have a listen to the following two-minute recording from that launch.

SOUNDS PLUS GUEST VOICE - ~1 min./54 sec. - “Hello, my name is Patrick Wilson…with the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, Va….  All right, we’re ready to start the upper-air balloon preparations here.  I’ve got a latex balloon… Here’s the actual…sonde; it’s got a GPS sensor in the bottom of it.  Right here’s the temperature sensor sticking out.  We…have a humidity sensor right here….  This thing will also determine the wind; we’re able to figure it out by simply tracking the GPS.  Every second this thing is sending us data; every second.  Even though we have lots of other data—such as [from] airplanes, when you’re taking off and landing, they’re giving us [data from] instruments, they’re being like the weather balloon, except it’s going up and down in a glide path.  [And] we have surface data; we have satellites that can infer the data from temperature and all those things.  And yet, of all the types of information we use now for data, still the only, number-one way to get information about the atmosphere in three dimensions is these weather balloons.   In fact, you all saw the advantage of that in [Superstorm] Sandy: we did upper air launches every six hours at requests of the [National] Hurricane Center, to figure out and narrow all the models and to say, it’s going to hit New Jersey, and be confident on it.…  So I’m gonna let go, and it’s gonna take off, and I mean literally, take off. Ready? 3-2-1….  Well we’ve got the launch on the way and I’ll be heading back into the office to…monitor the flight.  From here, it’ll be just watching the data and making sure everything’s working out before I send it off to Washington, D.C., and the models to crunch the numbers.  Right now, there’s 92 other sites in the United States that are just doing what I’ve done right now.  And all this data will be showing up in your weather forecast probably in the next few hours; doesn’t take that long.”

As noted in the segment you just heard, meteorologists continue to rely on measurements from balloon launches to make more accurate weather forecasts, adding the balloon data to information provided by radar, satellite photos, and other tools.  The data from such tools, along with computer modeling and skilled human judgments, help us make sense of the complicated air and water masses constantly moving overhead.

Thanks to the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg for their help with this week’s episode.  Thanks also to Andrew VanNorstrand for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with about 20 more seconds of “Buy For Me The Rain.”

MUSIC - ~19 sec – Lyrics: “Buy for me the rain my darling, buy for me the rain. Buy for me the rain, my darling, buy for me the rain.”


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This episode revises and replaces Episode 152, 3-11-13.

The sounds and guest voice in this episode were recorded during the February 28, 2013, 6 p.m. balloon launch by Patrick Wilson (then meteorologist intern, now meteorologist) at the Blacksburg, Virginia, National Weather Service forecast office.  Thanks to Mr. Wilson for allowing Virginia Water Radio to record the launch and for his informative comments in 2013, and for his help with the 2020 update of the 2013 episode.  Thanks also to David Wert, former meteorologist-in-charge at the Blacksburg office, for helping arrange the launch recording in 2013; and to Phil Hysell, warning coordination meteorologist at the Blacksburg office, for his help with the 2020 episode.

The recording of “Buy For Me The Rain” from the 2012 album “Andrew and Noah Band” on Great Bear Records is copyright by Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand, used with permission of Andrew VanNorstrand.  The song was written by Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland (Warner-Tamerlane, BMI).  More information about Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand is available online at

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at


Balloon ready for launch (upper photo), and launch site (lower photo), at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Blacksburg, Virginia; date not identified. Photos courtesy of David Wert at that office in March 2013.


Used for Audio

National Weather Service, Blacksburg, Va., Forecast Office, online at  Staff listing is online at

National Weather Service, “Weather Balloon Instrument/Radiosonde Information,” online at

National Weather Service/Charleston, S.C., Forecast Office, “Weather Balloon/Upper Air Observations,” online at

For More Information about Weather Balloons

A 3 min./8-sec. animated video on weather balloons, provided by the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS), is available online at

A 5-min./50-sec. video of a weather balloon launch by the National Weather Service Office for Dallas/Fort Worth, Tex., is available online at


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Weather/Climate/Natural Disasters” subject category.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript or by other information included in this post.

2013 Music SOLs

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Patterns, Cycles, and Change Theme
2.7 – Weather and seasonal changes affecting plants and animals.

Grades K-6 Interrelationships in Earth/Space Systems Theme
2.6 – identification of common storms and other weather phenomena.
4.6 – weather conditions, phenomena, and measurements.

Grades K-6 Matter Theme
6.6 – Properties of air (including pressure, temperature, and humidity) and structure/dynamics of earth’s atmosphere, including weather topics.

Earth Science Course
ES.11 – origin, evolution, and dynamics of the atmosphere, including human influences on climate.
ES.12 – weather and climate.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.

World Geography Course
WG.2 – how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.