Observations of upper air weather are more challenging than surface observations. There are only two methods by which upper air weather phenomena can be observed: radiosonde observations and pilot weather reports (PIREPs). A radiosonde is a small cubic instrumentation package which is suspended below a six foot hydrogen or helium filled balloon. Once released, the balloon rises at a rate of approximately 1,000 feet per minute (fpm). As it ascends, the instrumentation gathers various pieces of data such as air temperature and pressure, as well as wind speed and direction. Once the information is gathered, it is relayed to ground stations via a 300 milliwatt radio transmitter.
The balloon flight can last as long as 2 hours or more and can ascend to altitudes as high as 115,000 feet and drift as far as 125 miles. The temperatures and pressures experienced during the flight can be as low as -130 °F and pressures as low as a few thousandths of what is experienced at sea level.
Since the pressure decreases as the balloon rises in the atmosphere, the balloon expands until it reaches the limits of its elasticity. This point is reached when the diameter has increased to over 20 feet. At this point, the balloon pops and the radiosonde falls back to Earth. The descent is slowed by means of a parachute. The parachute aids in protecting people and objects on the ground. Each year over 75,000 balloons are launched. Of that number, 20 percent are recovered and returned for reconditioning. Return instructions are printed on the side of each radiosonde.
Pilots also provide vital information regarding upper air weather observations and remain the only real-time source of information regarding turbulence, icing, and cloud heights. This information is gathered and filed by pilots in flight. Together, PIREPs and radiosonde observations provide information on upper air conditions important for flight planning. Many domestic and international airlines have equipped their aircraft with instrumentation that automatically transmits inflight weather observations through the DataLink system to the airline dispatcher who disseminates the data to appropriate weather forecasting authorities.
Learn more about aviation weather with Weather Flying by Robert Buck. Regarded as the bible of weather flying, this aviation classic not only continues to make complex weather concepts understandable for even the least experienced of flyers, but has now been updated to cover new advances in technology.