Make weather balloons great again!

Figure showing the number of stations per year.
The number of launch bases reporting data with weather balloons. (figure source: Integrated Global Radiosonde Archive)

Twice a day, weather balloons are released simultaneously from hundreds of meteorological institutes and airports around the world. They monitor the global weather for more than a century, in which they measure the properties of the air layers —including temperature, humidity, wind pressure, cloudiness— up to 30km above the Earth’s surface. The measurements are collected in central databases, and provide key information for the daily weather forecast. The daily global party of meteorological measurements is at its downturn since the golden era in the 70s and 80s (right figure). After all, the balloon measurements are costly and labor intensive, and they are increasingly competing against other emerging resources from aircrafts and satellite imagery.

Nonetheless, weather balloons remain an exclusive global network of unequivocal measurements of the upper atmosphere with all its details. The launches are reliable at times when other sources of upper air data break down such as the coronavirus-linked decline in aviation data affecting weather forecasts. Balloon soundings also provide the persistent information about severe weather events, including thunderstorms, droughts and heatwaves. They are continuously integrated in weather and climate reconstructions, and used to verify and improve computer simulations of the atmosphere.

There is more. The soundings enable us to identify the mechanisms behind the onset, evolution, movement, and demise of extreme weather directly from the measured air properties. In this way, the emerging community continues to exploit the global archive of weather balloon soundings, and several studies are being conducted (see below). Since weather phenomena are highly variable, it is our experience that the abundance of soundings and launch sites distributed over different regions are indispensable to identify drivers of extreme weather.

Heatwaves, droughts and extreme precipitation are on the rise! The decay of the global weather balloon network impedes research on their responsible mechanisms under global warming. It also hampers hazardous weather monitoring for warning operations, and the development of climate mitigation scenarios and adaption strategies. Fortunately, new network rollouts in data scarce regions like Africa can turn the tide, but also novel technologies to automate the launches or to make them more controllable and sustainable, like drones. In either case, we need to perpetuate and extend the global weather balloon network as one of the most genuine legacies of the weather and climate community.

Let’s make weather balloons great again!


Recent CLASS4GL applications:

  • The first CLASS4GL application is included in a study led by Brecht Martens (Ghent University) that was published recently in the journal Geoscientific Model Development. The study concerns the validation of ‘surface fluxes’ from the reconstruction of the past climate ERA5. These surface fluxes comprise the heat exchange and moist exchanges between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, which largely influence outdoor temperature and humidity. The study found that the surface fluxes from ERA5 could better describe the evolution of upper air layers as observed from the weather balloons compared to its predecessor ERA-Interim. These results are one amongst the many benchmarks of the ERA5 surface fluxes against multiple types of observations.
    Martens, B., Schumacher, D. L., Wouters, H., Muñoz-Sabater, J., Verhoest, N. E. C., and Miralles, D. G.: Evaluating the land-surface energy partitioning in ERA5, Geosci. Model Dev., 13, 4159–4181,, 2020.
  • In a study led by Jasper Denissen (Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry; Wageningen University & Research), it is investigated whether moisture levels of the surface can be detected in the weather balloon observations. The study demonstrates in a unique way how weather balloons can be used to detect the influence of land conditions —particularly drought— on the atmosphere and vice versa. It was found to enhance our understanding of the interactions between the land conditions and the atmosphere conditions. The study is currently in revision for npj Atmosphere and Climate Sciences.
  • A study conducted by Hendrik Wouters (Ghent University; Flemish Institute for Technological Research) has investigated the effect of soil dryness on human heat stress and has been sent to review.
  • A study is being conducted by Vicky Meulenberg (Wageningen University & Research) and investigates the soil moisture influence on convective triggering —the atmospheric tipping point that precedes the presence of clouds and precipitation— and its temporal variability in different regions. CLASS4GL has been used to identify weather regimes at which either drier or moister land are advantageous for convective triggering.

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