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Using Weather Balloon Data to Map Atmospheric Temperature

Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues


Snow-capped mountains make a picturesque scene, especially in summertime when the peaks are in such contrast to the warmth below. This project shows you a way to see how temperature changes with altitude using data collected twice daily from weather balloons.


The goal of this project is to use weather balloon sounding data to investigate how air temperature and pressure vary with altitude.

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Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies


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Science Buddies Staff. "Using Weather Balloon Data to Map Atmospheric Temperature." Science Buddies, 28 July 2017, Accessed 21 Aug. 2018.

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Last edit date: 2017-07-28


Twice a day all over the U.S., the National Weather Service launches weather balloons with instrumentation packages called radiosondes to collect data on the current conditions of the upper atmosphere. As they ascend with the weather balloon, the radiosondes measure profiles of pressure, temperature, and relative humidity. The radiosondes contain radio transmitters that send the collected data back to Earth. The data are used for weather forecasting, and are available online.

You can use this data for a science fair project on atmospheric conditions. We will show you how to read temperature and pressure data from a standard upper air sounding plot—the same graphs that are used by meteorologists for weather forecasting. This project shows you how to find out how the temperature changes with altitude in the lowest layer of the Earth's atmosphere, the troposphere.

Figure 1 shows an example of an upper air sounding plot. This is a standard graph used by meteorologists to analyze data from a balloon sounding. There is a lot of additional information in the graph, but basically it is a plot of temperature (x-axis) vs. height (y-axis). The white data line on the left shows the dewpoint vs. pressure, and the white data line on the right shows the temperature vs. pressure. The pressure (in millibars, mb) is shown on the y-axis in blue lettering, and the height (in m) is shown in white lettering. A sounding plot is also called a "Skew T" plot, because the temperature axis is plotted at an angle (i.e., skew) of 45°. The temperature lines of the Skew T are in blue (at 45°).

example of an upper air sounding plot

Figure 1. Example of an upper air sounding plot from the Unisys Weather webpage. Data shown are from International Falls, MN, March 23, 2007. Brrrrr!

Atmospheric pressure decreases with height above the Earth's surface. The higher you go, the less atmosphere remains above you, so the pressure decreases. "Meteorology uses pressure as the vertical coordinate and not height. This works out better for thermodynamic computations that are done on a regular basis. Pressure decreases in the atmosphere exponentially as height increases reaching 0 pressure in space. The standard unit of pressure is millibars (mb or hectopascals-hPa) of which sea level is around 1015 mb. Here is a table of pressure levels and approximate heights (Unisys Corp., 2001):"

Pressure Approximate Height Approximate Temperature
(mb) (m) (ft) (°C) (°F)
(sea level)
0 0 15 59
1000 100 300 15 59
850 1500 5000 5 41
700 3000 10000 −5 23
500 5000 18000 −20 −4
300 9000 30000 −45 −49
200 12000 40000 −55 −67
100 16000 53000 −56 −69

Figure 2 shows how to read the temperature at a chosen pressure level (height). On the y-axis, find the pressure level (in mb) where you want to know the temperature. Follow the horizontal pressure line over until it intersects with the temperature plot (right-hand data plot, in white). Then follow the 45° temperature line down and to the left to the temperature axis. As shown in Figure 2, the temperature at 700 mb was about −11°C.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Reading the temperature of the atmosphere at 700 mb (3022 m) from the sounding plot. Follow the horizontal pressure line to where it intersects with the temperature plot (right hand data line, in white). Then follow the 45° temperature line down and to the left to the temperature axis. In this example, the temperature at 700 mb was about -11°C.

There is a lot more information in the sounding plot, but it isn't important for this project. If you want to learn more about sounding plots, see the references in the Bibliography section (Unisys Corp., 1998, 2001; Millersville University LEAD Undergraduates, date unknown).

In this project you will use balloon sounding data to investigate how atmospheric temperature and pressure change with altitude.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
  • Troposphere
  • Pressure
  • Temperature


  • What is the source of heat for the troposphere?


  • For more information about the layers of the Earth's atmosphere, see:
  • For current sounding data, see:
    Unisys Corp., 2005. "Unisys Weather: Upper Air: Upper Air Sounding Plots," Unisys Weather [accessed March 27, 2007]
  • For more information on the data contained in upper air sounding plots, see the following references:
  • This fact sheet from the National Weather Service describes the instrumentation used for upper air soundings:
    NWS, date unknown. "NWS Radiosonde Observations - Factsheet," U.S. National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [accessed March 28, 2007]

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Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Graph paper or graphing software

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research so that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts, and questions.
  2. For current weather balloon data from across the U.S., go to the Unisys Weather Upper Air Sounding Plots webpage (Unisys Corp., 2005).
  3. Click on the map (see illustration) to get sounding data from a particular station. Clicking on a station will load a webpage with the current sounding data from that station. You'll see a sounding plot like those in the Introduction.

upper air sounding station map

Upper air sounding station map (Unisys Corp., 2005)
  1. Above the sounding plot are controls for changing the plot that you are viewing from the currently selected station (see illustration).

    skew T plot control graphics

    Upper air sounding plot controls (Unisys Corp., 2005)

    Explanation of the controls:
    1. The type of plot can be switched between "Norm" (black background for computer monitor display) or "Inv" (white background for printing on paper).
    2. The "Text" button switches to a view of the current sounding data in tabular format.
    3. The time controls allow you to switch between the last four sounding plots (current, -12 h, -24 h, and -36 h) for the selected station.
    4. Note: although you can view graphs of data from four different time points, the text data option is for current sounding data only.
  2. Follow the instructions in the Introduction for reading the sounding plot. Make a table showing pressure (in mb), altitude (in m), and temperature (in °C) for each of the pressure levels shown in the sounding plot.


  1. Repeat this for at least 5 different sounding stations.
  2. Make a graph of your results that shows how temperature varies with atmospheric pressure for each station.
  3. Make a graph of your results that shows how pressure varies with altitude for each station.

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  • Balloon soundings are taken at 12-hour intervals. (Notice that the time given in the plots is coordinated universal time (UCT), not local time.) Depending on the station location and time of year, you may be able to compare soundings taken during daylight hours to those taken after sundown. Compare several sequential pairs of soundings (daylight/after sundown) for several locations. Do you see any consistent relationships in the two temperature plots? What do they tell you about the sun's contribution to heating different levels of the atmosphere?
  • For an experiment that relates atmospheric temperature and characteristics of snow, see the Science Buddies project How Does Atmospheric Temperature Affect the Water Content of Snow?

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