Recently, amid stilted weather-based small talk, a stranger divulged her amateur theory for meteorological malpractice. “Houston doesn’t have weather balloons,” she stated matter-of-factly. “That’s why the forecast is always wrong.”
Intrigued, we consulted local Space City Weather guru Eric Berger, who confirmed their absence. He explained that meteorologists have ferried sensors high into the atmosphere using hydrogen-filled balloons since the 1930s. By providing a clear profile of atmospheric conditions—as useful as the fanciest Doppler radar—these “soundings” inform detailed predictions of extreme weather including thunderstorms, ice storms, even hurricanes, which is one reason why the NWS maintains over 100 sounding locations scattered across the United States, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. “It’s kind of ridiculous that the fourth largest city has to guess about thunderstorms,” Berger says. “Soundings would help.”
If it’s such a no-brainer, why doesn’t Houston do it?
“We’re not set up for it,” says Lance Wood, science operations officer at the Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office in League City. He explains how, unlike many of its peers, his building isn’t located in an open space like an airport. Weather balloons may only be half a dozen feet in diameter, but the sensors trail tens of feet behind, just asking to get tangled in the nearby trees or buildings as it lifts off. This is less of a flaw than a choice; when the NWS consolidated its Houston offices to League City in the ’90s, it determined sounding locations in Lake Charles and Corpus Christi—both well over 100 miles away—to be adequate.
Wood assures us the Houston office does indeed make do without. In addition to using that data from Lake Charles and Corpus, they pull from elsewhere, too: Each time most FedEx, UPS, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines planes take off or land at Houston’s airports, sensors gather data on temperature and humidity. They also coordinate with Texas A&M in College Station, which performs soundings on demand to track anticipated severe weather, although this is unreliable since the sky, unlike college students, does not go on spring break.
Wood, too, would welcome more balloons—just not here. “Because we have the busy airports, I don’t think we would pick Houston as a sounding location,” he says. “I would pick a place that doesn’t get that data.” One suggestion is a full-time outfit in College Station, since severe weather often moves into Houston from the west. More soundings from there could only mean a more accurate forecast, if the budget allowed for it.
That would involve a new facility, more salaries, and, of course, more balloons. At $350 a pop, the balloons drift up to 125 miles from a launch site, and despite best efforts—like packing balloons with a postage-paid mailbag for citizens to return grounded equipment—only about 20 percent are recovered.
“If you have a big weather event coming, we want as much data as we can get our hands on,” Wood says, “but it does come with a price.”