NWS weighs in on how Chinese balloon shot down differs from weather balloon

NBC Nebraska Today
Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 9:52 AM CST
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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (KNOP) - The United States was captivated by a balloon floating 60,000 feet above the country last week, but the question remains, what was that balloon?

The Chinese have said it was their balloon, but claim it was a weather balloon. The United States alleges that the balloon was sent by China to spy.

The balloon was first noticed floating above Alaska, before crossing into Canada, and back into the United States. The balloon was shot down by the United States off the coast of South Carolina where recovery efforts of its payload are underway.

While weather balloons exist, we wanted to look into what the National Weather Service uses as weather balloons, and if they compare to the Chinese balloon.

Chad Fish
Chad Fish(Chad Fish | Chad Fish)

According to Chris Buttler, Senior Forecaster at the National Weather Service Office in North Platte, their balloons are very small.

“When this thing swells up, it’s maybe 30 foot in diameter,” Buttler said.

The Chinese balloon measured well over 100 feet, according to experts.

The National Weather Service’s payloads on weather balloons have decreased over the past few years as well. Starting in 2020, the newest radiosonde (the instrument package attached to the balloon) was shrunk down to just a few grams.

A National Weather Service radiosonde is about the size of a closed fist
A National Weather Service radiosonde is about the size of a closed fist(Ian Mason/KNOP)

Something that stuck out to many forecasters is the track of this balloon.

Weather balloons are designed to provide a snapshot of the atmosphere at a certain time at certain places. The process is to release a balloon up into the atmosphere, letting the hydrogen filled balloon ascend throughout the upper atmosphere naturally. Any redirection of the balloon is done by natural wind forces, which is how the balloon can calculate the strength of wind at different altitudes.

According to multiple sources in the U.S. government, the Chinese balloon was able to be remote controlled and moved on command.

Dr. Ken Dewey, an emeritus climatology professor at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, is skeptical of the research that could be done with a balloon that is being controlled.

“There is no real advantage to moving a balloon across a large area,” Dewey said. “We already have satellites measuring wind speed and direction, a balloon like that won’t give us anything new.”

Weather balloons are launched all over the world by many countries, however, they are all released at the same time.

“There are approximately 60 to 70 upper air stations in the United States,” Buttler said. “They all launch at the same time in the United States, and globally for that matter.”

Tracking the balloon/KY3 First Alert Weather Team
Tracking the balloon/KY3 First Alert Weather Team(ky3)

Most meteorologists agree that a guided balloon, moving through varied climatological regions, with a large non-disposable payload, hovering lower in the atmosphere than a normal weather balloon, does not make sense as far as modern research goes.

Both Dewey and Buttler added that they were not aware of a Chinese experiment like this in the field, but didn’t rule out its possibility.

All United States climatological and meteorological data collected by the United States government, including satellite, radar, and radiosondes, are available to the public at all times for no charge. These resources are restricted by regions and to advisories during times of conflict.