Sunday, February 05, 2012

Floating the Friendly Sky...

"It was the one thing in all the world that Prince Littleboy most wanted,- his own red balloon, floating up there in the sky, dangling its long golden cord.  The grey cloud had been hiding it all the time." - The Little Red Balloon, by Caroline Hofman.

Michelle Parks, a loyal viewer from Midland, NC posted this picture to our Weather on the Ones Facebook page on the afternoon of Thursday, February 2, 2012.

Michelle has found remnants from celebrations on her property in the past.  Energetic balloons from parties and weddings turned loose by the hands of those who will remember the night for company kept and stories made rather than the moment they set adrift a character whose eventual demise was a lifeless wobble over a random backyard east of Charlotte.

Being a Thursday, we're usually locked in a nomadic zone where we're close enough to the weekend to be joyous, but those precious days of rest are just beyond our reach to get too excited.  With our weekly routines well established, a little red balloon can release us from our pattern as its red shimmer beckons our attention  It conjures up images and feelings of summer days gone by.  Admit it, we all share a common story. We were the proud owners of a balloon only to bravely let it go with the confidence we'd catch it in time before it floats away.  It's a daring game of cat and mouse as our prize possession waived its string in our face like a hypnotists watch and  before we could close our fingers the balloon was free, floating away, leaving our spirits dashed just like Prince Littleboy in the classic 1918 children's book.

Michelle tracked and captured this balloon in one fell swoop.  Reading the attached card, pictured above, she was taken by surprise and wanted to tell us about it.  We're so thankful she did!

The card enlightened Michelle to the owners and the significance of the balloon.  This wasn't just an ordinary red balloon, this was a well traveled balloon belonging to an elementary school down the road; down the road 317 miles as the crow flies in Boaz, Alabama. "I was thrilled to find the balloon", Michelle said on our Facebook page, "When I found out it had been released less than 24 hours earlier it seemed absolutely incredible."

A day earlier and two states away, Principal Beth Scott, of Boaz Elementary School, wanted to celebrate the kickoff to 'read bowl' month with an event geared towards engaging students while keeping them excited.  An event where each child launches a balloon is drenched in symbolism for parents and teachers who are preparing kids for their future.  It was too good to pass up and a brilliant idea. Principal Scott recalls, "The weather was horrible.  It rained all day until about 2:05pm.  The release was scheduled for 2:15, so it worked out just in time for us to do this."

The cloudy and wet Wednesday of the release reached a crescendo when each balloon was sent on its own unique journey into the elements; where they would go, no one would know- at least for now.  Students, parents, and teachers had high hopes every balloon would reach a destination safely and someone would be kind enough to respond.  With help from the Boaz High School Art Department, once a balloon is reported students will map its location on canvas.  The completed art project will become a permanent display at the elementary school.

On a warm, winter afternoon in North Carolina, an excited Michelle Parks contacted the principal to let her know our little red balloon had reached its final destination in Midland, NC.  From the hands of children, through the clouds, rain and many miles flown one Tar Heel state resident has completed a circle.  Bringing joy to a group of students in Alabama.  Encouraging kids to read was the main reason for the balloon launch, but the lessons the students will learn from this project include kindness, a little luck and science (mainly Meteorology).

The weather on Wednesday set up perfectly for a balloon to track towards North Carolina.  At the surface high pressure was off the Atlantic Coast giving Alabama southwest winds.  These winds shifted to west-southwest over northern Georgia and eventually the ridge flattened out over North Carolina where winds were mainly out of the west.

The chart above shows readings taken at 18-thousand to 22-thousand feet above the ground! We're mainly focusing in on the wind barbs, or the red lines with red triangles over Georgia and North Carolina.  Winds at this height were measured at 50 knots (58mph) from the southwest.  It's reasonable to believe this balloon may have reached this altitude for several hours before losing enough helium to descend lower in the atmosphere- where winds are not as strong.

Typically, a small balloon filled with helium can rise as high as 3-5 miles above the ground!  The fate of the balloon is usually a structural failure (pop to you and me).  At such high altitude air pressure decreases, distorting the balloon.  Also, the air is much colder up there (-20 to -40 degrees, or colder, on a winter day) causing cracks in the balloon and an eventual pop.  It was unusually warm on Wednesday and Thursday, the skew-t chart above indicates profiles at 18-thousand to 25-thousand feet were between 0 to -10 degrees C.  The relative warmth at altitude and wind direction helped keep this balloon aloft for more than 300 miles.  Now, if you look at the balloon, pictured above, there is some color fade which would lead me to believe it was bouncing around in some pretty cold air aloft, but it wasn't enough to cause it to crack or pop and fall from the sky.  The result was probably some helium loss and an eventual downward drift to a level where winds were not as strong.  Simply put, a gradual decline to Midland where Michelle eventually found it.

In closing, there are a couple things to ponder.  First, I used 317 miles as a way to show the distance between Midland and Boaz, but the balloon logged many more miles.  The balloon not only had horizontal distance (a straight line is not how it truly travels), but also vertical distance (the ascent and decent isn't taken into account).  Finally, at least two more balloons have been reported.  Principal Scott has received a call from Bessemer City, NC and a call from South Carolina.

It's a pretty neat story and it's cool to think this all started as an idea in Boaz, AL!  The lessons we can take are those of interconnectedness, kindness and our dependence on each other.  Learning never stops and we can contribute in ways we'll never truly know unless we try.

Boaz Elementary School: Read Across BES Month


Anonymous said...

when I was in elementary school years ago in MD we used to sell the tickets that go on the balloons as fundraisers. We would have a mega balloon launch and the first persons balloon to be returned to the school would win a prize. It was a beautiful site to see all of the balloons fly away and wonder where they were headed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much News 14 for telling our little red balloon story. I still can't believe it traveled that far. I plan to walk our property to see if any more happened to land here.
Thanks again,
Michelle and Kevin Parks