In Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax holding his wings together, and he fell to the sea. In contrast, latex rubber weather balloons, the kind launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base every morning with a transmitter called a radiosonde, freeze when they get high enough!
These weather balloons quickly rise through the atmosphere to about 100,000 feet and greatly expand in diameter. Air temperatures at this altitude can drop to minus-50 degrees or lower and freeze the latex. At this high altitude, a frozen balloon undergoes “brittle fracturing” and ruptures into small shreds of rubber that then fall to Earth.
When they pop, the radiosonde — about the size of a milk carton — comes floating back to Earth on a small parachute. When hiking in some of our more remote areas, it’s not uncommon to come across one of these small, white radiosondes.
The radiosonde broadcasts readings on temperature, pressure and humidity levels, as well as Global Positioning System coordinates for the upper-level winds. This data can determine the instability of the atmosphere and the intensity of storms, and it can define the height of the temperature inversion layer when forecasting coastal low clouds and fog.
On Tuesday morning, Connor Kingman, Carson Lightfoot and Teyvon Brooks, students from Paso Robles High School, launched their own weather balloon from the school’s football field.
Their payload consisted of a cellphone and a small video camera. At the time of the balloon launch, the air temperature was 52 degrees on the football field with overcast skies. The balloon ascended through coastal clouds and at about 3,700 feet broke into the clear heavens. The students told me that you could hear the wind blowing across the microphone of the video camera as the balloon ascended through the marine layer, but turned deathly quiet as the balloon flew within the upper-level winds toward the southeast. The only sound they could hear was the distant rumble from a passing jet.
The balloon traveled about 50 miles before it popped over the mountains east of the Carrizo Plains. The balloon’s scientific payload gondola came floating down to the ground on its parachute.
Kingman and Lightfoot immediately set out to find their scientific experiment. GPS coordinates from the cellphone indicated that the balloon’s gondola was a few miles away from Highway 58 in a remote area. From the highway, they hiked and crawled over some extremely rough country before finding the gondola on a hillside.
“We are so grateful that it just happened to land in a spot with cell service,” Kingman told me.
Afterward, they removed ticks, burrs and foxtails from their clothing.
Connor, Carson and Teyvon are not the only North County students having fun with weather balloons.
On April 28, students participated in the Endeavour Institute STEM Education (science, technology, engineering and math) Balloon Fest at Tobin James Cellars east of Paso Robles.
Participants released tethered balloons with payloads of science experiments. The idea of this program came from Steve Kliewer. In 2001, Kliewer and four other physics teachers went to the National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, to launch a test model balloon weighing 3,000 pounds to an altitude of 120,000 feet. Although this alone was extremely exciting, he told me he also tried out a student-designed scientific payload on a much smaller balloon. This was the genesis of Balloon Fest.
Since 2003, local students have been given the opportunity to experiment with these tethered balloons.
“Students experience the journey of discovery from initial inquiry through design, testing, validation and planning prior to a full day of science every spring. They acquire data, analyze and then present their results to peers, parents and scientists. This is truly science in action,” Kliewer said.
For more information, log into http://balloon.endeavourInstitute.org.
A strong 1,035-millibar Eastern Pacific high will remain nearly stationary about 600 miles to the west-northwest of San Luis Obispo while a thermal trough develops over the Great Central Valley of California over the next few days. This area of high pressure has shifted the storm track far to the north into British Columbia.
Gentle to moderate (8- to 18-mph) and at times gusty northeasterly (offshore) winds will continue during the night and morning hours through Monday, producing mostly clear skies and mild to warm temperatures.
Today’s and Monday’s maximum temperatures will range from the low to high 80s in the North County, the low 80s in the coastal valleys and high 60s to the mid-70s along the beaches under clear skies.
The winds will turn onshore Tuesday and will continue to blow from the ocean to the land through Friday. This condition will allow the marine layer to develop along the beaches Tuesday, progressively surging further inland as the workweek rolls along. The coastal stratus will produce a cooling trend through Friday. The cooler weather will be short-lived, however, as another offshore wind event brings warmer temperatures to all locations next weekend.
Today’s surf report
Today’s 5- to 7-foot northwesterly (310-degree deep-water) sea and swell (with a 5- to 9-second period) will remain at this height and period through tonight.
A 4- to 6-foot northwesterly (290-degree deep-water) swell (with an 8- to 10-second period) will arrive along the Pecho Coast on Monday and will remain at this height and period through Wednesday morning.
The wind fields will shift off the Northern California coast Wednesday. These strong gale (47- to 54-mph) northwesterly winds off Cape Mendocino will generate a 6- to 8-foot northwesterly (315-degree deep-water) swell (with an 8- to 12-second period) along the Pecho Coast on Wednesday afternoon and night, increasing to 7 to 9 feet Thursday. This northwesterly swell will gradually decrease Friday into next weekend.
A Southern Hemisphere swell with a long interval will arrive along the Southern California coast Tuesday through Wednesday, but its incoming direction is from the south-southeast and will have little effect along the Pecho Coast. However, a much higher-energy Southern Hemisphere swell with intervals of over 22 seconds will arrive along our coast May 13 at 1 to 3 feet, building to 2 to 4 feet (with a 17- to 19-second period) May 14-15.
Seawater temperatures will range between 49 and 51 degrees through Tuesday, increasing to 51 to 53 degrees Wednesday through Friday.
The future of California is here. And it’s in our classrooms. In a world increasingly driven by technology, PG&E is committed to educating the students of today to reach their full potential tomorrow.
For more information, log into www.pge.com/about/community/education/.
John Lindsey, media relations representative for PG&E and local weather expert, has lived along the Central Coast for more than 25 years. To subscribe to his daily weather forecast or ask him a question, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.