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What is a Rawinsonde?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 28, 2024
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A rawinsonde is a device used to make meteorological observations in the upper air above the Earth's surface. Along with numerous other probes and devices, rawinsondes return data that can be used to learn more about weather systems. They are also used in weather forecasting, identifying patterns which can be linked with emerging weather systems so that members of the public can be alerted to anticipated weather conditions.

This device is a type of radiosonde. Radiosondes have been in use in meteorology since the 1920s, when the first one was sent aloft over France. These devices are designed to take readings and to transmit data to a receiver on Earth. Modern radiosondes are very sophisticated and may be capable of taking numerous readings including temperature, pressure, geographic location, altitude, and humidity. This data is sent to weather stations around the world.

The rawinsonde is capable of tracking wind speed as well as wind direction. It can be attached to a weather balloon with a suite of weather instruments or sent up alone. Rawinsondes can also be designed to take other types of weather readings, functioning as multipurpose radiosondes. In addition to being tracked with a radio, the rawinsonde can also be followed on a radar.

When a weather balloon comes back to Earth, the attached devices can be removed, inspected, and then set up for another launch. Weather monitoring equipment can be quite costly and it is generally designed to be durable and reusable, although weather balloons do get lost on occasion and sometimes instruments become dislodged or damaged while they are deployed. A rawinsonde can be vulnerable to damage in harsh weather due to the delicacy of the sensors used to monitor the wind.

Rawinsonde observation allows meteorologists to track and study wind patterns. Understanding the movement of wind in the upper air is critical not only for weather forecasting but also for long term study of the weather. Meteorologists use this data to learn more about shifts in the weather, to examine the interconnected nature of weather events, and to gather information which can be used in reconstructions to find out about the weather of the past.

In the event that one encounters a downed weather balloon and instruments, the equipment is usually marked with information identifying the agency which launched it, and it will appreciate a phone call. A representative can be sent out to collect the weather balloon and attached scientific instruments.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Mar 28, 2012

I think it would be fascinating to come across a lost weather balloon. I am sure this would be quite an expense for those who were responsible for it, but it would still be quite interesting.

I think with the way the weather can change so suddenly and be so harsh, that more of these would be lost than what we realize.

My niece always knew she wanted to be a weather forecaster. She ended up going to college and getting her journalism degree and went on to report the weather.

This is something she absolutely loves. I think she enjoys the journalism part of it more than anything, but her job is very interesting. Some of the devices they use to predict the weather are more complicated than I realized.

It is also a job that she never stops thinking about. She is constantly aware of what the weather is doing, how long it will last and when it will begin to change.

By golf07 — On Mar 28, 2012

There have been a lot of advancements in the prediction of the weather patterns through the years.

With devices like a rawinsonde, meteorologists can be much more accurate with their weather predictions.

Even with these sophisticated instruments and radar technology, I find it interesting how much variance there is in their weather forecasts.

Depending on which news channel you listen to, there can be a big difference in what the weather forecast for the day is. Sometimes they all get it wrong and a lot of people are caught off guard.

Many farmers I know still rely on the behavior of their animals to predict if a storm is coming, or if a change in barometric pressure is coming.

It seems like many animals have a sense about this that is uncanny. This gives them a chance to find some protection for themselves and their young.

While most professional weather forecasters rely on devices like the rawinsonde, many people know all they have to do is watch their animals. Some people rely on how the joints in their body are feeling to know if weather changes are coming.

By myharley — On Mar 28, 2012

I live in the middle of an agricultural area and it is common for us to pass by many farms on our way to town.

Once in awhile you will still an old weather vane on top of an old barn. Years ago, this was important for farmers to know which direction the wind was blowing.

Today all of this is determined with devices like the rawinsonde. Instead of looking outside our window at the weather vane or going outside to observe the trees, we listen to the weather reports on the news.

We have a lot of windy days where I live, and our state is a major producer of wind energy. This type of information is helpful for many people who live in my state.

It is very helpful for someone to tell you how strong the wind is going to be blowing, what direction it is coming from, and when it will die down.

By andee — On Mar 27, 2012

I am not very familiar with the instruments the meteorologists use to get their weather information, but find this type of device fascinating.

One of the big things in my part of the country in the summertime is the humidity levels. This is sometimes more important than the actual temperature.

If it is going to be 90 degrees with low humidity, then you know that won't be so bad. It's the days when you have 90 degrees with 100% humidity that really take a toll on you.

Most of our hot summer days come with high humidity levels. It is nice to know before you head out the door in the morning how high the humidity is going to be for the day.

Our local meteorologists must use radiosondes to help them determine what our daily humidity levels are going to be.

By shell4life — On Mar 27, 2012

My cousin is a meteorologist, and he told me that modern rawinsondes have a GPS system in them. So, they can be recovered much more easily than they could in the past. They probably still have a contact number on them just in case, but I doubt it is very necessary.

He also told me about another weather instrument related to the rawinsonde called a “dropwindsonde.” He said it does the same job as the rawinsonde, but it does it while going down instead of up.

Someone drops a dropwindsonde from a plane, and a little parachute holds it steady so that it can measure what it needs to while descending slowly. So, we have wind measuring instruments going up and down in the sky all the time, like little elevators!

By Perdido — On Mar 26, 2012

@kylee07drg - I don’t know exactly what a rawinsonde looks like, but I have heard that they are at least partially made of lightweight foam. This is the same stuff that disposable drinking cups and plates are made from, and it allows the rawinsonde to float without being encumbered by gravity.

I remember doing an experiment in school that involved a helium-filled balloon and a foam cup. I think the teacher was trying to teach us about weather instruments and how they work, though she didn’t use the word “rawinsonde.” We were in fourth grade, so that word was a little too big for us, I suppose.

When I think of weather instruments, I automatically picture lots of complicated metal and knobs, but really, this type of thing couldn’t float. It can’t be very heavy at all.

By kylee07drg — On Mar 26, 2012

I think it would be so cool to find a downed weather balloon attached to a rawinsonde. I would love to see what one looks like.

As a child, I sometimes found deflated balloons with messages inside that had been intentionally set adrift to see how far they would travel. There was always a phone number and address in the note, and it was fascinating to talk to the person miles away who set it out.

I have heard that finding a weather balloon and rawinsonde is very rare. Plenty of them probably land in water or in a tangled forest somewhere, but since I seem to be a magnet to traveling balloons, I hope that I one day come across a fallen rawinsonde.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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