Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Up, Up and Away: How NIST Research Helped Improve Weather Balloon Forecasting

A large white balloon with a small box attached to it waits inside a cinderblock building with a rolltop door.
NIST researchers contributed to the development of the radiosonde in the 1930s, and it's still used today to help meteorologists predict the weather. These devices are also used for air pollution models and weather and climate change research.
Credit: Courtesy of National Weather Service

While we think of balloons as a fun party accessory, they also play an important role in weather forecasting. 

Sunday is National Balloons Around the World Day, a day to celebrate both the whimsical and scientific side of balloons.

In the 1930s, NIST researchers designed and built a balloon-borne instrument that could send weather data to the ground. Nearly 90 years later, the devices, known as radiosondes, are still used today

You could say radiosondes really took off! 

Historic photo shows three men in suits standing on the roof of a building, preparing two large white balloons with attached instruments.
The radiosonde was developed by NIST and used extensively by the U.S. Army, Navy and Weather Bureau for collecting weather data from the upper atmosphere.
Credit: NIST Archives

Although radiosondes were documented as early as 1929, NIST researchers worked on early versions of the radiosonde for the U.S. Navy in 1936 to measure environmental conditions in the upper atmosphere. By 1938, NIST added the capability to measure humidity accurately. 

Allen V. Astin, who went on to become the director of NIST (then known as the National Bureau of Standards), and Harry Diamond, a pioneering radio engineer, were among the researchers who worked on radiosondes

The radiosonde, French for “radio sounding,” quickly became an important part of weather prediction. By 1940, thousands of radiosondes were being sent into the skies to gather data on cloud height and thickness, temperature, pressure, humidity and other meteorological factors. 

Eyes and Ears in the Atmosphere

Twice a day, every day (unless there’s lightning in the area), National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists attach a radiosonde to a balloon filled with either hydrogen or helium. A parachute is also attached. They launch it into the sky, where it stays afloat for at least 90 minutes. NWS does this at more than 90 stations in and around the U.S. 

Because of the decrease in air pressure higher in the atmosphere, the balloon gets bigger as it travels up in the air, from about 1.5 meters (5 feet) at launch to about 6 to 8 meters (20 to 25 feet)

What goes up must come down. Once the balloon reaches that inflated size, it bursts. That’s why meteorologists include a parachute. This helps minimize the risk of injury when the radiosonde and balloon fall back to the ground. 

While weather balloon information is important in forecasting, it’s also vital to other research, such as studying climate change and air pollution.  

Practical systems for the study of upper-air phenomena by small radio-equipped sounding balloons were first examined at at NIST (then known as the National Bureau of Standards.) 

Weather Balloons Near You 

So if you’re celebrating this quirky holiday on Sunday, you can look to the skies for a weather balloon (or see where there’s a radiosonde in your area). And if you find a radiosonde, you can return it to the NWS, so it can be used again. 

We are not full of hot air when we say NIST research helped improve weather forecasting.  

Related posts


Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as long as they are appropriate for a public, family friendly website, are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, misleading or false information/accusations or promote specific commercial products, services or organizations. Comments that violate our comment policy or include links to non-government organizations/web pages will not be posted.