Weather Blog: What is a radiosonde?

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(WRDW/WAGT) — ​Earlier this week we received a call from a viewer in Waynesboro, Georgia about a weather device attached to a parachute she found in her sister’s peanut field. When we went to investigate, we found a radiosonde that was launched by the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, GA on January 6th, 2018. A radiosonde is a small device that measures temperature, pressure, and relative humidity. It is attached to giant weather balloons that travels up to 21 miles high and has been recovered over 180 miles from the launch site. Over 800 weather offices around the world launch radiosondes twice a day at the same time, 0 UTC and 12 UTC, which is 7 AM and 7 PM EST.

Radiosondes are important because our atmosphere is a three dimensional space. Temperature, pressure, and relative humidity all change relative to altitude. Weather models are unable to produce a forecast with only surface observations since that is only one layer of the atmosphere. The National Weather Service has been launching radiosondes since the late 1930s. As the radiosonde travels up through the atmosphere it sends back data through a transmitter on the device. All the data from radiosondes help initialize weather models, which is the starting point for the models before they are integrated forward in time. They also help give us ground truth from satellite observations. Modern day satellites can scan our atmosphere and provide weather models a lot of data, but radiosondes are still needed to fill in holes blocked by thick cloud cover and also provide a second observation to make sure the satellite data is trustworthy.

If you are lucky enough to stumble upon a radiosonde launched by the National Weather Service, there will be a mail bag attached to it so you can send it to a reconditioning center in Missouri. According to the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, Georgia, around 5-10% of radiosondes launched are returned and reused. The National Weather Service has 102 launch sites, including sites in the Carribean, Pacific, and Puerto Rico. Due to upper-level wind patterns, most of the radiosondes found in the CSRA are from the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.

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