For the last few weeks Lloyd MacLeod has been seeing what he thought was a leaf bag blowing around in his field across from his house.
On Saturday, he started plowing the field to get ready for his soybean crop and he realized it wasn’t a bag.
“As soon as I got up close, I knew it was a weather balloon,” he said.
Attached to the orange sheet of plastic was some string and a parcel filled with meteorological equipment, which is known as a radiosonde.
A radiosonde collects weather data from high in the atmosphere — information on wind speed, direction, temperature, pressure and humidity. This information is used to help folks like me make accurate weather forecasts.
The radiosonde is stamped with the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) logo and came with a tube that included a postage paid envelope and instructions to mail the device back to the NOAA’s National Reconditioning Center in Grandview, Mo.
Attached to a large parachute
I put a call into the NOAA and spoke with Jon Carney, who is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in St. Louis, Mo. He says that it was likely launched in Caribou, Maine, or possibly Portland, Maine, but there is no way to be sure.
Jon says that the radiosondes do occasionally land in fields and sometimes even land on cattle but “the cows don’t seem to mind too much.”
The reason they don’t seem to mind is that all radiosondes are equipped with a large orange parachute.
I called the NOAA’s National Weather Service office in Caribou, Maine, and spoke with meteorologist Priscilla Farrar.
According to Priscilla, these balloons will soar up very high in the atmosphere, some as high as 100,000 feet!
At these heights, the lack of air pressure allows the balloon to expand so much that it tears.
This is where the parachute is deployed, and according to Farrar, the radiosonde “lazily floats to Earth.”
A rare find
However, finding a radiosonde is extremely rare.
According to Cedric Debolt at the NOAA Reconditioning Office — which is where the radiosondes are returned to — only “a few thousand a year” come back.
This may sound like a lot, but according to the NOAA, these balloons are launched at least twice a day from over 92 sites.
Priscilla says that her team in Caribou launches at least two a day and sometimes three or four if there are major events like strong thunderstorms or tropical storm systems.
According to Priscilla “we launch them during blizzards, 50 m.p.h. [80 km/h] winds. The only time we don’t release them is when there is lightning.”
This means that there are nearly 70,000 weather balloons launched each year in the U.S. at a minimum. Only a small number of those are ever found and returned. So Lloyd MacLeod really does have a rare find on his hands.
This isn’t the first time Lloyd has had a balloon in his field.
The MacLeod family has been farming in the area since the early 1800s and in the late 1970s, Lloyd once saw a hot air balloon land in that very same field. Luckily they had a ground crew following in trucks to pick them up as getting that particular “parcel” home may have cost “too much in postage.”
The radiosonde he found won’t be returning to the U.S. either. Lloyd offered me the device, so I offered to send it back to the NOAA for reuse. They told me it was an older model and I could keep it. I’ll be hanging on to it, and using it when I teach kids about meteorology.