weather balloon, balloon used in the measurement and evaluation of mostly upper atmospheric conditions (see atmosphere). Information may be gathered during the vertical ascent of the balloon through the atmosphere or during its motions once it has reached a predetermined maximum altitude. Today, atmospheric information is most often gathered by height-finding radar, remote sensing by earth-orbiting or stationary satellites, and aircraft instruments, with weather balloons augmenting the data. Helium, which is less dense than air (see buoyancy), is usually used to inflate weather balloons. A pilot balloon is a small balloon (diameter c.1 m/39 in.) whose ascent is followed visually to obtain data for the computation of the speed and direction of winds at different altitudes. A smaller ceiling balloon is used to determine the altitude of cloud bases. A much larger, teardrop-shaped balloon is used to carry a radiosonde aloft. The balloon expands as it rises, usually reaching an altitude of at least 90,000 ft (27,400 m) before it bursts. A small parachute lowers the instruments to the ground. Teardrop-shaped balloons are also used for horizontal sounding of the atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure, temperature, and humidity information may be sent by radio from a balloon; monitoring of its movement provides information about winds at its flight level. Techniques also have been developed whereby many horizontal sounding balloons can be monitored by earth-orbiting satellites that relay information to earth-based stations. The tetroon is a tetrahedral balloon used for horizontal sounding. It was developed to withstand the extremely low pressures of high-altitude flight; the straight seals joining its four triangular faces are stronger than the curved seals of the more traditionally shaped balloons. Tetroons have been used extensively in tracing low-level atmospheric currents by following their movement with radar; they have thus increased the meteorologist's understanding of atmospheric turbulence, low-level vertical motions, and air pollution dispersion.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.