The Mongolfier brothers of France are credited with the first lighter than air craft, a hot air bag of sack cloth and paper that drifted above the town of Annonay in December 1782, so it makes sense French balloon technology is being used by U.S. researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to get a better picture of hurricane formation in the eastern tropical Atlantic.
In a collaboration between NCAR and the French space agency (CNES), a series of large, specialized balloons will be launched into the stratosphere and will release up to 300 individual sensor packages. These sensor units will report back on conditions inside the forming hurricanes. Since the region of the Atlantic off West Africa is out of range of U.S. hurricane hunting aircraft, weather researchers have data on which of the forming low pressure systems off Africa will develop into hurricanes.
With better knowledge of the emerging storms, the hope is that weather scientists will better be able to identify the conditions that create hurricanes that later cause havoc for mariners and for people on shore in the Caribbean and the continental U.S. The balloons will be released from a site in Niger and then drift west at altitudes between 65,000 and 70,000 feet. Twice a day the balloon’s instrument package will release a dropsonde that will radio back atmospheric data during its 20-minute drop to the surface.
Even in the world of satellites and doppler radar, the wind-driven balloon can still make a contribution. That’s something any sailor can take to heart.