Currently — February 10th, 2023

What you need to know, currently.

If you’re like me, your news alerts have been inundated with news about the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the U.S. for several days and was shot down over South Carolina, on Saturday. What does this have to do with the weather? Well, the Chinese government claims the balloon was being used for “mainly meteorological” research.  

The Biden administration confirmed today that the balloon was part of a  “military-linked aerial surveillance program” that targeted around 40 different countries. Many have pointed out that in the age of satellite surveillance, using balloon technology does not make much sense. While the balloon motive is still not entirely clear, what we do know, is that a normal weather balloon could not have made the trek the spy balloon made.

So for starters, what is a weather balloon?

Weather balloons are an essential tool, used by meteorologists to collect weather data such as — temperature, pressure, and humidity. Every day about 900 weather balloons are released around the world. Typically, they start out around 6 feet wide and expand to 20 feet. Weather balloons are filled with helium or hydrogen and are equipped with a radiosonde — a small data collection device. They travel along, literally going where the wild blows, transmitting data back to the ground every one or two seconds, according to the National Weather Service.

Weather balloons rise, expand, and eventually burst — usually somewhere around 60 thousand feet in the sky, however, they can reach up to 10 thousand feet. They generally travel around 100 miles on their journey and spend about 2 hours in the air, depending on weather conditions.

By contrast, the controversial spy balloon that was taken down over the Carolina coast, was about 200 feet tall — its payload, which holds equipment is estimated to be about the size of three school buses. The balloon also spent almost a week in the air and had some sort of navigational ability.

— Abbie Veitch

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