Medford National Weather Service unveiling new technology

The National Weather Service's Medford office is upgrading the equipment meteorologists use to gather weather-pattern data, a move officials say will result in more accurate forecasts.

The upgrade comes in the form of tiny sensors called radiosondes. The devices are attached to the bottom of weather balloons, which are launched twice daily. During a 90-minute ascent to about 100,000 feet in the air, the sensors transmit data back to NWS computers.

"It will take temperature, the relative humidity and the pressure," said NWS meteorologist Mike Ottenweller.

The Medford office was one of 24 NWS locations in the U.S. to receive the new radiosondes. There are 102 stations in North America, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean, and more than 800 locations worldwide. The award was based on the Medford station's forecast accuracy history, and its location relative to the Pacific Ocean.

"We're kind of the entry point for these systems that are going to go and affect the rest of the United States," Ottenweller said.

Where the old radiosondes transmitted data every second or so, the new RS-92 model broadcasts every one-sixth of a second.

"The whole system is designed to eliminate any errors," Ottenweller said.

After reaching the peak of its ascent, the weather balloon bursts, a small parachute opens and it carries the radiosonde back to earth. The devices will typically land somewhere east of the Cascades, Ottenweller said. A prepaid mailing envelope is attached to each transmitter, which can be used to send the device back to NWS offices. The radiosondes cost $250 each, but only about 20 percent of them are returned nationwide.

"If it's a loss, that's a loss that we incur," Ottenweller said, adding the data each radiosonde provides makes the loss worth it.

The inaugural launch for the new radiosondes will be at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28. "We're very much looking forward to being part of this phase two to gather information more accurately, more effectively," Ottenweller said. "We're very excited to be transitioning."

— Ryan Pfeil

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