UND students deploy balloons to gather data
GRAND FORKS -- A crowd of University of North Dakota graduate students shielded their eyes Wednesday morning as they watched a weather balloon soar high into the sunshine on its way to an anticipated landing about 100 miles away somewhere in Minnesota.
Brandon Bigelbach, a graduate student who set up the launch, said they're not going to chase it down later.
"We're not going to look for them, we're not going to chase them, we're just going to let them go," he said.
Graduate students in UND's Department of Atmospheric Sciences were attempting their first launch of a weather balloon to capture a "snapshot" of the atmosphere and observe the way its information is incorporated into forecasts, said Mike Poellot, chairman of the Atmospheric Sciences Department. It's particularly useful coming from Grand Forks, which doesn't usually have access to that data.
"Even with all of the other ways of getting this type of information -- from satellite, from instruments on the ground -- balloon measurements are still a key part of the measurements that go into making the forecast," Poellot said.
Students circled around Bigelbach near the train tracks by Clifford Hall on the southwest corner of campus as he held the 5-foot-diameter balloon up in the air. A red parachute and an instrument called a radiosonde that detects atmospheric measurements were attached.
"If everybody's ready, I can launch it," he said.
Within seconds of its release, the balloon disappeared into the eye of the sun, with the ability of ascending as high as 50,000 feet in the air within one hour. As it rises, the radiosonde detects pressure, temperature and humidity information and transmits it back to a radio receiver, which records the data by the second.
The National Weather Service launches balloons like these from 102 sites across the United States, the Caribbean and the Pacific to help with forecasting, according to the organization, but none of those is located in Grand Forks. The closest sites are in Bismarck, International Falls, Minn., and Aberdeen, S.D.
"We're kind of a hole here for this type of information, so that's why we're doing some research," said Poellot. "We can do this right here and get some relevant information on what's happening right here, right now."
He said the department won't launch balloons twice daily like the weather service, but will try to launch another four or five times to complement different classes and give students the opportunity to see how it's done. Students realize basic information drawn from the radiosonde leads to weather forecasts that matter to major sectors of the economy, such as transportation, agriculture and energy, he said.
"There are a lot of ways in which improving our ability to forecast the future state of the atmosphere can really impact the economy," he said. "It's just what we do."