November 17, 2007
Meteorological (met) balloons are launched from McMurdo twice daily to gather atmospheric data that helps predict the weather. A weatherman’s job in Antarctica is especially difficult for several reasons. First, there is no radar data for the meteorologists to use for this area. Think about how our weathermen at home use radar images as a matter of course! Second, weather here can change dramatically and dangerously in just a matter of hours. But the greatest challenge for the weather predictors here is that they are acutely aware that people’s lives depend on the accuracy of their predictions. Helicopter flights and fixed wing flights are governed by the decisions made at the Met Center, as are field teams’ travel plans. If a plane takes off, it must be able to fly to its destination. There are precious few other places for them to land if the weather deteriorates.
So, imagine my excitement when Patricia Ballou invited me to launch one of the met balloons. Patricia has quite an amazing story. She is on a leave from the army where she has deployed to the Mideast twice, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. She worked as a combat weatherperson in the army and is now gathering data and helping predict the weather in Antarctica this year. She is also writing climate interviews for Celsias. Check out her interview with David Harwood, the co-chief of ANDRILL and keep watching for an interview she is working on with me! (www.celsias.com then scroll down the right side to Patricia’s name.)
Patricia is adding in weather data to the computer that came in from one of the Met field stations while I was there.
I met her at the Met Center and when I arrived she had begun hydrating the Sonde. The Sonde is a complicated device that records many different types of data including temperature, barometric pressure, and relative humidity, while also carrying an antenna that allows satellites to track it as well as to send data back to the McMurdo weather computers. This morning, ten satellites were tracking this one balloon! I found it interesting that the same data is received in South Carolina where besides helping predict the weather here, it is being used in world climate models.
Patricia and I took the fully hydrated Sonde down to the “balloon shack,” a two story structure built on prime McMurdo real estate. When the door is opened, what a view there is of the Ross Sea and the Trans-Antarctic Mountains!
Balloon shack—notice the two story section—very large Met balloons can be inflated here.
Patrica’s pointing out the view of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and Hut Point.
Patricia turns on the helium pumps in the huge outside tanks.
Blowing up the balloon with helium.
Patricia deftly ties the Sonde onto the inflated balloon.
The Sonde has a small wire that records all of the measurements--and an antenna on the other end that sends the info to the McM computers.
Guess who I am missing!
Walking out of the balloon shack was tricky. It was very windy and felt like I could take wing and fly at any moment. The wind kept whipping the balloon around over my head, so I hung on to it and the Sonde, worried I would mess this up and ruin an expensive piece of equipment!
It felt like the wind was winning at this point. I was concentrating on the directions Patricia had given me—let go of the balloon and wait until you feel it tug on the Sonde, then let it go too.
Mentally rehearsing— concentrate! Don’t mess up!
And there she goes! If you look carefully, you can see the Sonde unraveling its string to dangle quite some distance from the balloon.
Walking back to the Met building I took this picture—it’s the building with the large white golf ball on top. Notice the “catwalk” because in the next picture I am ON that walk. Patricia and I went up on the roof where she takes precipitation samples. I liked the view! But I didn’t like the one flight climb down the metal rung ladder to get back inside!