Up, Up and Away!

NOAA Marks 30 Years of Balloon-Based Water Vapor Research

Scientists from NOAA’s Earth System  Research Laboratory launch a balloon carrying instruments that measure water vapor in the upper atmosphere. In April, NOAA marked the 30th anniversary of balloon-based water vapor research.

Scientists from NOAA’s ESRL launch a balloon carrying instruments that measure water vapor in the upper atmosphere.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA ESRL)

Thirty years ago in April, NOAA scientist Sam Oltmans and his research team from the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., set out on a small but ambitious endeavor to learn more about the distribution and role of water vapor in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

They began launching large helium-filled balloons fitted with sensitive monitoring instruments into the stratosphere — soaring as high as 98,000 feet. It’s a method remarkably similar to what’s still used today. The data, sent back to the lab via radio transmissions, served as the foundation for today’s stratospheric water vapor data record — the longest continuous record of its kind in the world.

As a greenhouse gas, water vapor plays unique roles in climate change. Warming can increase water vapor levels in the lower atmosphere, for example, where it can further enhance warming.

ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division commemorated the 30th anniversary of balloon-based water vapor research with a ceremonial launch of a NOAA-instrumented balloon (video) into the skies over Boulder in late April.

An in-flight photo from the balloon shows the curvature of the Earth.

An in-flight photo from the balloon shows the curvature of the Earth.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA ESRL)

Research Shows Change Is In the Air

Changes in the amount of upper atmosphere — or stratospheric — water vapor strongly influence surface temperatures, according to a paper published in Science magazine. The researchers relied on data from the long-term Boulder water vapor data record as well as satellite observations.

Their findings indicate that as stratospheric water vapor decreased after 2000, it has slowed the rate of the Earth’s warming. Likewise, an increase in water vapor in the 1990s accelerated the rate of warming during that time — by about 30 percent. Scientists cannot yet fully explain the changing patterns of the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere.

The research team was led by authors Susan Solomon, Karen Rosenlof, Robert Portmann, and John Daniel from NOAA’s ESRL; CIRES researchers Sean Davis and Todd Sanford; and Gian-Kasper Plattner of the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Scientist Sam Oltmans, who started NOAA's water vapor research program in 1980, holds an old computer printout of data from a balloon-borne water vapor instrument called a frost-point hygrometer.

Scientist Sam Oltmans, who started NOAA's water vapor research program in 1980, holds an old computer printout of data from a balloon-borne water vapor instrument called a frost-point hygrometer.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA ESRL)

Science Begins With Data Collection

What began as a modest and experimental monitoring operation developed by Oltmans’ team decades ago has culminated in an important global repository of data that is critical to furthering our collective understanding and investigation of climate change. 

You can learn more about why water vapor research is so important by clicking here. To view a chronological photo gallery of NOAA’s anniversary balloon launch, visit the ESRL Web site. NOAA logo.