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Weather stations on Earth’s surface are easy to install. But how do meteorologists know what the weather is like 6 to 12 miles above their heads? Knowing the state of the upper atmosphere is vital for forecasting weather on the ground. To obtain this information, weather balloons are launched twice a day in almost 900 locations worldwide.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students in Assistant Professor Alison Nugent’s atmospheric science class launch a weather balloon each semester to learn the process first hand. The balloon floated up to about 13.5 miles (10 kilometers) above the Earth.

student holding on to white weather balloon

UH Mānoa atmospheric science student preparing to release a weather balloon.

The helium balloon has an instrument package attached, which measures temperature, pressure and humidity as it rises through the atmosphere. The instruments send back data to a ground receiver. The location of the balloon, wind speed and wind direction with altitude can also be observed.

“We want the students to be able to see the connection between what we learn in the classroom and how it applies to the real science of data gathering,” Nugent said. “I believe such an experience is worth a thousand lectures.”

Nugent has the students use the dataset to learn how to calculate various atmospheric indices, such as the lifting condensation level (cloud base), convective available potential energy (energy available for convection) and other measures of atmospheric energy and stability.

“We’ve been trying to understand all of these different variables in class and we always used data given to us,” UH Mānoa student Maarten Molenaar said. “Now we’re going to use our own data and make connections to what we see in the sky right above us.”

“It was really exciting,” UH Mānoa student Eleanore Law said. “We’re seeing all the data pile in. It is cool to see life happening in action.”

Nugent splashed into the public spotlight when she helped break down this summer’s Hurricane Lane on local TV news for hours to help viewers better understand the science behind what was happening.

students and instructor posing with white weather balloon

Alison Nugent’s atmospheric science class.

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