Up, up and away: Launching Balloons in a Blizzard

by Sofie Bates

Andrew Janiszeski and Troy Zaremba blow up a weather balloon in a dark hotel lobby. The weather was calm last night when they drove into Plymouth, Massachusetts, but this morning a blizzard is raging outside. Snow is piling up in the hotel parking lot, wind gusts are near 70mph, and the power is out – but they have a job to do.

Janiszeski and Zaremba, two graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are one of several teams deployed throughout the northeastern United States to launch weather balloons during the approaching snowstorm. While the teams launch weather balloons from the ground, two NASA aircraft will fly overhead to study the storm from a different vantage. The experiments are part of NASA’s multi-year Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Storms (IMPACTS) mission, which is the first comprehensive study of snowstorms across the Eastern United States in 30 years. 

Satellite image of snowfall over the northeastern U.S.
The nor’easter dumped snow on the northeastern United States on January 28-29 and brought hurricane force winds and blizzard conditions to some states. Image by NASA Earth Observatory / Lauren Dauphin using MODIS data from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Janiszeski and Zaremba bundle up and step out into the blizzard to prepare for the first balloon launch of the day. They bury a communications antenna in a snowbank next to their van and attach a small device, called a radiosonde, to the balloon with tape and zip ties. If all goes well, the radiosonde will measure the balloon’s position as well as the temperature, pressure and humidity at different altitudes as the balloon rises into the sky. This data will help the scientists understand the atmospheric conditions of the storm and how they change with altitude.

Andrew Janiszeski prepares to launch a weather balloon in a winter snowstorm.
Andrew Janiszeski prepares to launch a weather balloon near Geneseo, New York on a previous deployment for IMPACTS. Hanging below the weather balloon is the radiosonde, which will collect data as the balloon rises and then parachute back down once the balloon pops. Photo courtesy of Troy Zaremba.

They walk the balloon out of the hotel lobby. Double check that the communications antenna and radiosonde are working. Then they let the balloon go.

“It went fifteen feet up, caught a gust of wind, did a loop, dove down, almost hit a car, rag dolled around a tree, went over a gas station, and popped,” said Janiszeski. They tried again with another balloon. Same thing – pop! Hesitant to sacrifice more balloons to the winds, Janiszeski and Zaremba called the IMPACTS Headquarters team to report that they couldn’t launch.

Snow piles up in the hotel parking lot in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Janiszeski and Zaremba are launching weather balloons. Photo courtesy of Andrew Janiszeski.
Snow piles up in the hotel parking lot in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Janiszeski and Zaremba are launching weather balloons. Photo courtesy of Andrew Janiszeski.

Meanwhile at IMPACTS Headquarters, based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located on the eastern shore of Virginia, scientists monitored the weather and coordinated with the various teams on the ground and in the air. Their goal is to fly the two aircraft – the ER-2 aircraft that flies above the storm clouds and the P-3 aircraft that flies within them – in a stacked formation, one above the other, providing a look at the storm from different perspectives. The team also plans the flights so that the aircraft pass over the teams launching weather balloons and the teams using ground-based radars. 

“We’re trying to coordinate all of the equipment to get a nice cross section of the storm. But the storm doesn’t sit still for us, so sometimes we have to adjust our plans,” said Bob Rauber, Director of School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the assistant flight planners for IMPACTS. There are a lot of factors to consider, though: clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), weather forecasts, where the storm is moving and points of interest in its path, and last-minute changes for the aircraft and ground teams – including problematic weather balloon launches.

The NASA P-3 Orion aircraft preparing to take off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
The NASA P-3 Orion aircraft preparing to take off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Photo courtesy of Andrien Liem.

By early afternoon the winds had subsided to around 40 mile per hour gusts at the balloon launch site in Plymouth, said Janiszeski, so he and Zaremba decided to attempt another launch. They tied the radiosonde to the weather balloon, adding extra zip ties and duct tape for good measure. Then they walked it out of the hotel lobby, took a breath, and let it go.

As soon as it was released, the balloon was taken by the wind. It flipped once, twice, three times, and Janiszeski’s hope plummeted. But then the balloon righted itself and kept rising, and rising, until it was impossible to see. 

“It was a miracle,” said Janiszeski. “I really thought we were going to get a whopping zero balloons up at the beginning of the day.” But from there on out, the balloon launches were largely successful, he said. The duo got five successful balloon launches before the storm moved away from Plymouth. 

“This was, without the remotest doubt, the most severe conditions we’ve experienced during IMPACTS,” said Janiszeski. “I was getting a little pessimistic, but five radiosondes in a storm like that… We’ll take it as a win.”