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March 7, 2014

Balloon's flight ends in Otego man's yard

By Jessica Reynolds Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Tom Barrett of Otego said a puzzling object he found in a field Thursday made him feel like he was living out a science-fiction film.

“It looked like something from a martian movie,” Barrett said, “and, from far away, it looked like it had a foreign language written on it.”

The funny-looking object had, indeed, traveled a great distance, but not from any galaxies far away. It was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather balloon from the National Weather Service’s Forecast Office in Buffalo.

Barrett, 67, said he spotted an orange parachute-like object in one of the upper fields near his home on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he revved up his tractor and headed into the field, which is covered with 15 inches of snow, he said. Barrett said he approached cautiously and breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing this message: “Harmless Weather Instrument.” A large, deflated balloon, attached by 40 feet of rope to a small box, lay on the ground.

“The balloon was thick latex, but it was completely shredded,” Barrett said. “It looked almost like spaghetti.”

According to NOAA, the deflated balloons and attached plain white boxes are found regularly. The white box is actually an important piece of weather equipment called a radiosonde, which is suspended below the hydrogen- or helium-filled balloon and takes upper air observations.

Barrett said information on the radiosonde noted that the balloon had been launched at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in Buffalo, meaning it traveled more than 200 miles in a short period of time. Attached were instructions to mail the equipment back to the Buffalo office.

SUNY Oneonta meteorology professor Jerome Blechman said finding a burst weather balloon such as this one is a rare occurrence for our area. This is mainly because the closest National Weather Service station is in Albany, he said, which is downwind from Oneonta. For a balloon from the Buffalo station to land in Oneonta, it would have to encounter very strong, steady wind from the west, which Blechman said was the case on Tuesday night. The Albany station reported 70 knot winds that night, he said.

As the weather balloon rises through the atmosphere, the radiosonde measures and transmits information about air pressure, temperature, wind direction and speed, Blechman said, which is used to assess and predict changes in the atmosphere and weather.

But after the balloon reaches an altitude of about 100,000 feet, it bursts and the balloon and radiosonde float to the ground via parachute, Blechman said. They are often found more than 200 miles away from the launch site and are discovered in a wide variety of locations, according to the NOAA website, such as in trees, on bridges, in backyards, or in nearby fields, as in Barrett’s case. Blechman said two balloons are released every day from each weather station, one in the morning and one at night.

According to the National Weather Service, less than 20 percent of the 75,000 radiosondes that are released each year are returned, despite the organization’s efforts to provide an addressed, postage-paid return mailbag. Returning the equipment benefits the environment and saves taxpayer dollars by recycling the units for reuse, the website said.

“I plan on mailing it back,” Barrett said, “I think that would be a good service to the organization.”

But before he does, Barrett, a retired dentist who lives with his wife, Sylvia, said he has been showing it off to friends and neighbors.

“It’s been kinda fun,” Barrett said. “I’ve never seen one before.”

Barrett and other area residents will likely be glad to hear of predictions from the SUNY Oneonta Forecast Center which, Blechman said, is calling for warmer weather today, with highs in the upper 30s.

“We’re going to be getting more normal, typical ‘March’ weather starting tomorrow,” Blechman said. “People are going to be thinking it’s balmy, but remember to still wear a coat.”