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NWS to pause Tallahassee weather balloon launches; how this affects local forecasting

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Posted at 5:42 PM, Jun 14, 2024

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Weather balloons, and the equipment they carry, are a vital way of measuring weather conditions way up in the sky, where the average person can't easily reach. But a shift away from the gas most known for causing balloons to float will pop the ability for local weather balloon launches.

The National Weather Service announced Friday that the balloon launch site at Florida State University — where the local National Weather Service office is housed — will suspend the daily weather balloon launches indefinitely.

The pause goes into effect July 1.

Balloons are released from scores of sites around the country, usually once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The balloons carry an electronic device called a radiosonde, which contains equipment that measures weather conditions like temperatures, wind speed and direction, air pressure, moisture content, and other parameters, as it travels into the higher altitudes of the earth's atmosphere. The data collected is transmitted back to reporting sites, where it's used for various purposes, particularly in the processing of a variety of forecast models.

Helium had been commonly used to float these balloons, the same gas that is used in everyday birthday party balloons. There's been a long-running shortage of the noble gas around the world, in part because of its widespread use in those party balloons, plus medical device purposes in MRI machines and other reasons. Known domestic helium supplies had been declining and the gas is naturally difficult to capture because it rises and escapes so easily.

The National Weather Service now uses hydrogen at most of the 100 launch sites in the United States and the Caribbean region. However, Tallahassee is one of 12 sites that relies on helium.

The NWS cited safety concerns involved in the switchover to hydrogen as the reason for the upcoming suspension of local balloon launches.

First to Know Chief Meteorologist Casanova Nurse had noticed several occasions over the last couple of years when weather balloon launches did not proceed at their usual times from the Tallahassee site. In 2022, the NWS announced a change in the frequency of balloon launches at certain sites where helium was still the primary way of lifting them.

Friday, when Casanova asked NWS Director of Public Affairs Susan Buchanan of the specific reasons behind the safety concerns involving hydrogen, Buchanan responded in the email:

Since hydrogen is flammable, some sites are not compatible with its use due to safety concerns in densely populated areas (i.e., sites that are located close to occupied buildings on college campuses). The Tallahassee upper air site fits this description, which is why we cannot convert the lifting gas to hydrogen.
Susan Buchanan, Director of Public Affairs, National Weather Service

The local National Weather Service's facilities are located on the fourth floor of the Love Building on the northwest side of the FSU campus. The Love Building also contains classrooms and offices affiliated with the university's mathematics department.

Alternate ways to sample upper-atmosphere conditions are available. Regular balloon launches from Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa are not shown to be affected by the Tallahassee suspension. Special launches of radiosondes have been performed in the past in tropical and severe weather situations. Automated functions also exist from government and commercial aircraft which can be included in forecast model processing. Additional remote sensing and observing methods include orbiting satellites and radars.

Friday's statement made no mention of solutions that would cause Tallahassee-based weather balloon launches to resume in the long-term.