In DepthMETEOROLOGY

Robotic weather balloon launchers spread in Alaska

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Science  27 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6387, pp. 366
DOI: 10.1126/science.360.6387.366

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Summary

Last week, things began stirring inside the truck-size box that sat among melting piles of snow at the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska. Before long, the roof of the box yawned open and a weather balloon took off into the sunny afternoon, instruments dangling. The entire launch was triggered with the touch of a button, 5 kilometers away at an office of the National Weather Service (NWS). The flight was smooth, just one of hundreds of twice-daily balloon launches around the world that radio back crucial data for weather forecasts. But most of those balloons are launched by people; the robotic launchers, which are rolling out across Alaska, are proving to be controversial. NWS says the autolaunchers will save money and free up staff to work on more pressing matters. But representatives of the employee union question their reliability, and say they will hasten the end of Alaska's remote weather offices, where forecasting duties and hours have already been slashed.

  • * Julia Rosen is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.