In anticipation of late evening storms, the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences launched a weather balloon Monday afternoon.
Following a severe weather warning from the Storm Prediction Center, A&M’s Student Altitude Operational Program, or SOUP, arranged to launch a weather balloon ahead of Monday night’s thunderstorm. The instrument attached to that balloon, a radiosonde, collects the data needed to help National Weather Service, or NWS, forecasters better understand atmospheric conditions aloft.
Following the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010, SOUP was created to provide the NWS with information on atmospheric conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. Atmospheric Science Professor Erik Nielsen, Class of 2013, became involved with the program during this time as a sophomore at A&M. Twelve years later, at the launch of SOUP’s 250th weather balloon, Nielsen said the program’s goal remains the same: to help forecasters determine what is really happening at a particular location.
“The atmosphere is not only on the surface [of the earth]”, Nielsen said. “So weather balloons are one of the most direct ways to get temperature, humidity and wind information as we go up. [in the atmosphere].”
Thunderstorms tend to occur when air rises and stays warmer than surrounding air, Nielsen said. Therefore, obtaining a vertical profile of atmospheric conditions is important to assess the possibility of thunderstorms.
The NWS employs a system where specific locations around the world host twice-daily radiosonde launches. The data obtained from these launches serves directly as the main source of information for various forecasting models around the world. According to the NWS, 92 of these sites are located in North America.
Nielsen said the NWS offices closest to College Station that conduct twice-daily launches are Dallas, Corpus Christi and Lake Charles.
“We’re kind of in the middle of a data gap when it comes to weather balloons or radiosondes,” Nielsen said. “So if we have the consumables, we will launch in those cases to help [the NWS] specify what the forecast will actually be.
Although the decision to launch a balloon was made by professors in the department, the launch itself was almost entirely student-run. On Sunday evening, a message was sent to meteorology students informing them of Monday’s launch and encouraging them to participate.
Upon arrival, the students were divided into three cohorts. A group headed upstairs to the 15th-floor observatory of the Eller Oceanography and Meteorology Building, or O&M. These students were responsible for receiving the data from the radiosonde as it was transmitted in real time.
The other two groups headed outside. While one group aired out the balloon and prepared it for launch, the other traveled to the launch site where they observed and reported current weather conditions.
Sophomore meteorology student Clara Holloway said attending the launch made her realize how extensive the process was.
“I learned the whole set-up process,” Holloway said. “They have a T about how specific it is, and it’s such a big team effort.”
Once the group aired the balloon and attached the parachute, they joined the other group at the launch site. Here, the radiosonde was attached to the balloon, current conditions were relayed by radio to students at the O&M Observatory, and Easterwood Airport was notified of the launch.
While waiting for the “green light”, four students stood in a line holding the balloon and its accessories: one holding the balloon, one holding the parachute, one holding the coil and another holding the radiosonde. Finally, the countdown began and the ball was tossed into the air.
Nielsen said that because the balloon is in the air, it is radioed back to the observatory’s computers and plotted on a thermodynamic diagram.
“By plotting it, we can see how the air will hypothetically rise or fall in terms of temperature,” Nielsen said. “If it’s warmer than its surroundings, then we have a chance of thunderstorms.”
Nielsen also said how the wind varies with height matters because faster changes indicate a higher risk of organized storms.
“If the wind changes quickly enough with height, both in direction and speed, we could be in a scenario where we move from isolated thunderstorms to larger-scale systems or supercells,” Nielsen said. “[These systems] have the best chance of producing a rotation and, potentially, a tornado.
Ultimately, according to Nielsen, the resulting temperature, humidity and wind profile provided by the radiosonde allowed forecasters to see that there was a threat of intense winds when the storms passed Monday evening. The NWS was able to issue warnings accordingly, meaning that the goal of assisting forecasters has been achieved.
“When the storm came, I felt like I did something,” Holloway said. “I was able to apply so many things I learned in class and helped the NWS.”
From the hands-on process of filling the balloon to launching it and viewing the transmitted data in real time, Nielsen said students are able to better understand and appreciate what they are learning.
“That’s what I want to do with my life,” Holloway said. “Doing that – being able to help with the prediction – really confirmed that I’m doing what I really want to do.”