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Encore: Meteorologists Launch Balloons To Collect Weather Data


Weather maps and satellites are essential tools for meteorologists. So are balloons. Twice a day, meteorologists around the world release balloons at the exact same time, like clockwork. This simple action has been critical to the science of weather forecasting for decades. In Alaska, John Ryan of member station KUCB tagged along with the scientist at one of America's most remote weather stations.


JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: Three-hundred miles off Alaska's West Coast is St. Paul Island, and William Wells mans the weather station there. It's a few miles outside the village of 700 people who call the island home. Each afternoon, he walks from his office to a two-story cavernous garage. That's where he fills up a 6-foot-wide balloon. Helium is too expensive in the middle of the Bering Sea, so Wells uses explosive hydrogen that's generated right there in the garage.

WILLIAM WELLS: But we're under no threat right now 'cause it's contained safely within that latex.

RYAN: Once the big latex balloon is inflated, Wells ties a string and a small electronic gadget to the balloon.

WELLS: It tracks the temperature, relative humidity and wind speed and wind direction as it goes up through the atmosphere, and it's supposed to give us a relative atmospheric profile.

RYAN: He opens up a double-tall garage door. Then he grabs the balloon string. When the clock strikes 3...

WELLS: I'm going to run out.

RYAN: He sprints onto the tundra toward a gravel road. As the balloon clears the door, a 30-knot wind whips it to the east. The balloon is pummeled into a shape kind of like a 3-D comma. Once Wells reaches the road, he releases the balloon. It takes off more sideways than up. The gadget dangling below knocks his Carolina Panthers ski cap right of his head. He grabs his hat and returns to the garage.

WELLS: Now, I'm going to apologize to you, but I'm going to take off almost at full-bore sprint.

RYAN: He dashes a hundred yards back to his office to make sure the balloon is sending data.

WELLS: We are such a remote location. Our data is pretty precious.

RYAN: It gets used within the hour in the 4 p.m. forecast that mariners in the Bering Sea rely on.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: K-J-Y-73 on St. Paul Island - tonight, west wind, 30 knots - sea - 16 feet, snow showers.

RYAN: Wells is a continent away from his native North Carolina, but he says he couldn't be happier.

WELLS: I feel privileged to be doing this.

RYAN: He says his two-and-a-half years on the outer limits of the last frontier have been good for him.

WELLS: I lost 25 pounds after I moved up here because I didn't have the temptations of fast food restaurants.

RYAN: It's a different career path from his fellow meteorologists who put on makeup and sweep their arms in front of weather maps.

WELLS: They can have the TV and the radio. I'm stick with this.

RYAN: But Wells' gig might not last long. The National Weather Service is testing a device that would automatically launch the balloons. Soon, at weather stations across the country, machines could replace human balloon launchers. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in St. Paul, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.