Weather or not

How Environment Canada collects the information it needs to predict our weather



Richard Gordon checks his watch one last time and lets go. The large cream-coloured balloon he is holding immediately starts to rise, trailing a small box behind it.

Twice a day a big rubber balloon like this one is released from the weather station in Iqaluit. It’s one of 32 upper air stations in the country that collect data and send it to a central location in the South where weather predictions are made.

“If it’s cold and clear you can get a fast one, no problem,” Gordon says, watching the balloon climb into the sky and eventually disappear somewhere in the blue over the bay. Once it reaches about 36,000 metres it will burst and fall back to Earth.

The balloon is filled with hydrogen, a colourless and odourless gas, and the box trailing beneath it measures the atmospheric conditions and sends information back to the computer at the Iqaluit weather station every 10 seconds.

In the South, most balloons are filled with helium, but here it’s only used as a back-up because of the cost of shipping it. If the balloon rises too quickly because of temperature or weight, the information it sends back may not be completely accurate relative to other stations.

Each one of the upper air stations releases a balloon twice daily at exactly the same time. When Gordon releases a balloon at 7:15 a.m., for example, a balloon is being released at 3:15 a.m. in Vancouver, B.C. If a balloon is released too early the contractors are fined by Environment Canada.

Narwhal Arctic Services has the contract in Iqaluit and three people are trained for weather duties.

Gordon has been releasing balloons for Environment Canada for about a year and a half, he says, but there is more to the job than just tossing a rubber balloon into the air.

He arrives about 45 minutes before he has to release the balloon and goes through a quality check procedure that involves soaking a small battery that runs the transmitting device trailed behind the balloon in water for three minutes to activate it.

“So far everything’s good, so we’re going to input the data and get started,” he says after punching buttons on the machine in front of him.

He then enters more numbers, including the temperature and humidity, and the machine beeps letting him know everything is fine.

Then, checking his watch, he leads the way to a nearby tall, grey building. He points to the fire-warning lights and alarm system on the outside of the facility, indicating whether there has been a hydrogen leak and if it’s safe to enter. He also checks a safety vent on the side of the building to make sure it isn’t clogged with ice or snow.

“First thing you’ve got to do is ground yourself, so the lights are all grounded and you rub yourself on the lights and you keep grounding yourself as you go,” he instructs as he enters the building.

Hydrogen can be volatile if there is any electrical source that could give off sparks. That includes static electricity.

After the balloon has been checked for defects it is slowly inflated and bobs about like a jellyfish on its stand. The hydrogen used to fill it is made in the building from filtered water and Gordon replaces the amount used before calling the airport to let them know he’s about to release a balloon.

Once it’s gone, Gordon goes back into the office to wait for the data to start downloading onto the computer. The small box measures wind direction, speed, temperature and humidity.

As the data builds up, Gordon watches to make sure the signal is coming in strong. Once it reaches a certain amount, it is automatically sent south to a station in Dorval, Que.

Much of Environment Canada’s weather collecting is automated now, but at the station in Iqaluit, there are manual tasks to be done.

Gordon, dressed in dark blue coveralls, grabs a copper cylinder and heads off behind the grey building to what looks like a metal-stemmed six-foot tall tulip. Gordon reaches in and removes a copper cylinder he then replaces with the one from the office. He explains he will melt the snow and measure how much water, or precipitation fell in the last 12 hours.

An instrument perched on a stand a few feet away measures the amount of sunlight. A specially calibrated paper strip is wrapped around a glass globe encased in metal. The light goes through the globe and burns marks onto the paper, which is then read by Gordon using a ruler-type instrument.

Gordon traipses through more snow to reach posts where the amount of snow on the ground can be read on marked poles.

He is also responsible for measuring ice cores taken from the bay once a week to determine ice thickness and help calculate the rate of global warming.

It’s a job that requires training, mostly because of the safety issues with the hydrogen, he says, but he enjoys it.

“I really don’t mind getting up in the morning,” he says. Especially since he has some insider knowledge on how to dress for the weather.

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