Last month, a weather balloon launched by the National Weather Service office in Little Rock, Arkansas, landed near the National Weather Service office in Memphis, Tennessee, 80 miles to the east.
UPDATE: Sadly, it was too good to be true. The balloon landed five miles away from the office and the person who found it returned it to them. As one of the office's meteorologists clarified on Twitter, they hung the balloon from a branch outside of the office as a "photo op."
@DrShepherd2013 it landed about 5 miles from the office. We placed it in the tree for a photo op.
— John P. Moore III (@WxTrey) February 6, 2015
Tweeting out a picture of the balloon hanging from a tree in their front yard was super misleading on their part, and I apologize to you all. The rest of the post below this update remains intact, as it appeared on publication.
The agency's forecasting office in eastern Memphis tweeted out the picture on Tuesday, showing a weather balloon and rawinsonde (weather instrument package) hanging from a tree outside of the office:
— NWS Memphis (@NWSMemphis) February 3, 2015
Little Rock is the closest upwind site to NWS Memphis that releases a balloon—the latter office doesn't release one of its own. The office in central Arkansas tweeted them back the SKEW-T chart that resulted from this particular balloon launch.
This isn't the first freak instance involving a weather balloon in the past couple of years. On the morning of April 28, 2012, the forecast office in Tallahassee, Florida, released a weather balloon that actually landed on a person when it returned to earth in Jefferson County, Florida—the first such instance of a weather balloon striking a person on record. A math whiz at the office determined that the odds of this happening on that day in that county was one in 506,800,000,000,000,000 (506.8 quadrillion).
In a Facebook post describing the incident back in 2012, the office said that weather balloons are designed with parachutes so the balloon's remnants and instrument package make a gentle return to earth so they don't cause any injury or damage. The parachute is seen in orange in the tree outside of NWS Memphis in the image above.
Weather balloons carry an instrument package called a "rawinsonde" that measures temperature, moisture, air pressure, and wind speed/direction in a slice of the atmosphere to tell us what's going on above our heads. This data is used to help delineate major weather features, which is especially useful during extreme events such as tornado outbreaks or hurricanes. This data is assimilated into weather models to help the computer algorithms know what's going on in the atmosphere right now to help them predict what will happen in the future.
The National Weather Service releases weather balloons from 102 sites around the United States (in addition to those launches in hundreds more spots around the world); launches are conducted twice a day at 00 UTC and 12 UTC, with more launches before a major severe weather outbreak or ahead of a landfalling hurricane like Sandy.