Weather Balloon Technology Aids Cal OES in Saving Lives


Twice a day, a large white balloon is released into the sky high above the San Diego region. It’s gathering important intel… but not the kind you might immediately think.

The data retrieved by the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Weather Balloon is transmitted across the state to assist partners like the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) in making timely decisions during disasters.

And when it comes to disaster response, up-to-date weather intel can be critical.

“We’re constantly monitoring weather and sharing that with our operational area partners and departments across our region to make sure that they’re prepared and have that intelligence resource available to make those decisions on a moment’s notice,” said Tony Rouhotas, Assistant Fire Chief Region VI, for Cal OES.

Because weather and fuel conditions are key ingredients in fire behavior, accurate and consistent insight helps incident commanders make decisions to contain wildfires and save lives.

 This technology benefits residents of Californians when evacuations are necessary, notifications need to be placed, or warnings need to be issued.

The weather balloon gathers four aspects of meteorological information: air temperature, moisture, wind speed and direction, and pressure. This data is collected from heights of up to 80,000 feet. That information is transmitted in real time to a central weather station where analysts log the data.

“The information we get from the weather balloon, and what feeds our weather models, is ultimately how we’re able to do the magic of ‘hey, I know it’s calm now but we’re going to have 50 mph winds this afternoon. I know it’s cool now but the temperature is going to be up around 100,’” said Alex Tardy, Weather Coordination Meteorologist with the NWS.

The process to release the weather balloon is fully automated. At a computer in the NWS San Diego office, meteorologists can communicate with the system, fill the balloon with hydrogen, initiate the launch, let it go, and monitor the data with a few mouse clicks.

“Ultimately that’s how we make a forecast and how we warn all of our users, the public, our partners when something hazardous is going to happen before it happens, hopefully,” Tardy said.