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Have you ever looked up at the sky and noticed a familiar a shape in the clouds? Maybe a train? Or a face? With constantly changing clouds coming in all shapes and sizes, it’s easy to think of cloud gazing as harmless fun. But studying clouds can provide important information about everything from the weather in our backyards to the latest changes up in the atmosphere.
What are clouds?
Clouds are made up of water. You might think water hanging up in the atmosphere would have to be a gas, but the water in clouds is actually liquid. Clouds are made up of water droplets so tiny and light that the air holds them up! The droplets are less dense than the air around them, making it possible for them to stay up. Depending on where a cloud is in the sky, the droplets can be made of water or ice.
How do clouds form?
Forming a cloud droplet starts with something like a piece of sea salt or sand floating in the air. The little particle provides a solid surface for water vapor in the air to condense onto. This allows a water droplet to form. Many water droplets can form in the same area and can be kept close together by winds. Such a build-up of water droplets creates a cloud. Clouds can easily be made up of billions of water droplets!
How do we study clouds?
Weather balloons are one of the government’s most common tools for data collection off the ground. Twice per day, every day, weather balloons are sent up at the same time from almost 900 places around the world. These balloons are designed to provide data about different air conditions, including clouds!
Weather balloons carry bundles of measurement tools called radiosondes . As a weather balloon rises through parts of the atmosphere, the tools collect sets of data at different altitudes. Instruments in these bundles test moisture levels, temperature, wind speeds, and more. Eventually, the balloon breaks in the air, and drops the bundle.
Why send weather balloons into clouds?
Data collected using weather balloons helps provide data for computer forecast models, predicting storms, and research. Beyond this, weather balloons are the only things we can safely send into the center of a thunderstorm!
Inside a thunderstorm
Being near a thunderstorm is very dangerous, and being within one is even worse. Thunderstorms have electrical charges to them: a negative charge near the bottom and a positive charge near the top. The Earth’s surface below provides some positive charge as well. This difference in charges is what creates lightning. While it may seem like one storm can generate a lot of lightning strikes to the ground, that is nothing compared to inside the storm. About 75-80% of lightning occurs within the cloud, between the storm’s bottom negative field and top positive field.
That’s why anything you send into a thundercloud will probably be struck by lightning. Weather balloons are affordable enough to be a valuable tool in this dangerous setting. Scientists and students alike even send weather balloons into thunderstorms in the Midwest to better predict the formation of tornadoes!
What we’re still learning about thunderstorms
Thunderstorms are incredibly volatile. Their formation and termination are difficult to predict and understand, making them especially dangerous. Current studies hope to help us better understand the inner mechanisms behind certain thunderstorm phenomena. Thunderstorms have many little pockets of different air pressures and wind directions within them. Better understanding of such inner temperature changes, wind speeds and directions, and electrical charges may help improve our predictions for when and where thunderstorms will form.
How can I help? Can I send a balloon into the clouds?
Weather balloons need to be able to resist temperatures as cold as -139 degrees Fahrenheit survive changes in humidity. Most balloons cannot handle these atmospheric changes, but you can find special weather balloons online! Many schools have taken up the challenge of sending up their own weather balloon and even submitting their data to the NOAA and National Weather Service!
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.1
Flesch Kincaid Reading ease: 63.8
Droplets: Tiny collections of water around a solid particle that form together to make a cloud. So small that they are suspended in the air.
Radiosonde: Bundle of different tools and instruments meant to measure different atmospheric conditions. Usually attached to a weather balloon.
Lutgens, F. K., Tarbuck, E. J., Herman, R., & Tasa, D. G. (2018). Atmosphere: An Introduction to Meteorology Plus Mastering Meteorology with Pearson eText, The — Access Card Package (14th Edition) (MasteringMeteorology Series) (14th ed.). Pearson.
National Weather Service. (n.d.). Weather Balloons. https://www.weather.gov/bmx/kidscorner_weatherballoons
Cappucci, M. (2019, July 25). This team of scientists launches weather balloons into violent storms. What they learn could improve tornado forecasts. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/07/25/this-team-scientists-launches-weather-balloons-into-violent-storms-what-they-learn-could-improve-tornado-forecasts/
National Weather Service. (n.d.-a). NWS JetStream – How Lightning is Created. https://www.weather.gov/jetstream/lightning