For July and August, the Vernon Museum will share a series of articles that explore some of the many heritage sites around the North Okanagan. To plan a visit to any of the sites featured, please visit https://vernonmuseum.ca/explore/heritage-field-trips/.
The First Balloon is Released
In the afternoon of October 31, 1971, more than 100 people turned out, including the mayor, a federal deputy minister, and the local MP, to watch Russ Colville, a meteorological technician at the Vernon Upper Air Station, launch the site’s first hydrogen balloon.
The Vernon weather station opened that year on a hill overlooking the commonage for a cost of $200,000. At the time, it was only the fourth of its kind in the province, and the thirty-fifth in Canada, and was part of a world-wide network of stations that provided data for weather-forecasting purposes.
During the station’s first few years, it operated under a staff of four; two men worked per shift, five hours on, five hours off, with two days in between.
How Weather Balloons Work
Twice a day, at 3:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., a hydrogen-filled balloon was launched from the Vernon station and sent more than 32 kilometres into the atmosphere. These weren’t your average birthday balloons; they were white and massive, at more than 1.5 metres in diameter. Tied to the bottom of the balloon was a lightweight instrument called a radiosonde. As it ascended into the sky beneath the balloon, the device beamed atmospheric information such as pressure, temperature, and humidity back to the ground station via a small radio transmitter.
The balloon would rise at about 1,000 feet per minute, expanding until it reached a maximum diameter of around 20 feet. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 feet, the balloon would burst, and the radiosonde would hurtle back towards the earth. A little parachute helped to slow its descent, and eventually it would touch down, often great distances from its release point. The device was not recovered, but instead was left to biodegrade.
A final Launch
By 1994, technological changes meant that the manual release of balloons was no longer required. The weather station’s duties were transferred to the Mountain Weather Service office in Kelowna which employed a quicker, more automated system. But for those who had dedicated their lives to measuring weather using balloons, the final launch on January 13, 1994, marked a sad occasion. Russ Colville was called out of retirement to release the last balloon, and a handful of people arrived for the occasion.
The building that once housed the Vernon Upper Air Station still stands, and now contains the Allan Brooks Nature Centre.
Russ Colville releases the last weather balloon from the Vernon Upper Air Station on January 13, 1994. GVMA #14980.
The Vernon Upper Air Station during its decommission in 1994. GVMA #14916.
The Allan Brooks Nature Centre now occupies the building used by the Vernon Upper Air Station at 250 Allan Brooks Way. Image courtesy of the Allan Brooks Nature Centre.
Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator