Have you ever thought about the process in place so we can read a weather forecast? Well one of those processes used by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) is to use weather balloons and targets. These targets consist of a large balloon, an approximately 1m x 1m x 1m polystyrene target with a silver lining, and at night a torch with AA batteries. These targets are released from BoM offices around the country between 2 – 16 times a day, with the balloons being filled with helium allowing them to rise to high altitudes and the silver lining allowing the radar to lock and track them.
The life of a weather balloon target only needs to be around 1.5 hours and when they reach a certain height the balloon bursts and then they float down to earth.
And with the earth consisting of 70% water, many of these targets land in the ocean where they start to break up into smaller and smaller pieces of balloon and polystyrene foam; and the batteries in the torches start to leach out into the ocean.
Data on weather balloon target components is being collected by Tangaroa Blue volunteers from around the country, and to date they have been collected along the coast in Far North Queensland impacting both heritage listed sites of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree National Park; from Sydney to Newcastle to Byron Bay in NSW; on Adelaide beaches; from the South West to Geraldton in WA and throughout Darwin Harbour.
On one monitoring site in the Daintree National Park, where clean ups are conducted along a 3km stretch of beach every 3 months, between 300 - 550 pieces of weather balloon target are found on each clean up. At Chilli Beach in Iron Range National Park in Cape York over 3000 pieces of weather balloon target were found during the 2012 Chilli Beach Clean Up in just 5km of coastline.
Tangaroa Blue contacted the Bureau of Meteorology in 2011 to request information on why this item was being used, and to inform BoM of the extent that this type of pollution was impacting the Australian marine and coastal environment. The BoM have made it clear that they have no intention of changing this practice in the near future.
In this day and age, with the technology available, we find it very hard to understand why BoM would choose to use a practise that involves dumping an item that does not biodegrade into our oceans multiple times every day from multiple locations around the country.
Tangaroa Blue has now launched a campaign which will inform the public on how BoM checks wind direction and speed, and encourages everyone to contact BoM to let them know your thoughts:
Bureau of Meteorology
Dr Sue Barrell - Deputy Director Observations and Infrastructure
GPO Box 1289 Melbourne VIC 3001
Tel: +61 3 9669 4000
Check back soon and see the latest on this issue!
On January 15th 2014, Tangaroa Blue Foundation received a response letter from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) updating us of their plans to reduce the impact of weather balloons and their components on the environment.
In the letter, BoM stated that they are committed to minimising any negative environmental impacts arising from their operations through the reduction of the number of balloon releases; and using sustainable materials where possible.
Tangaroa Blue Foundation have been the first to calculate the impact of weather balloons on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The findings were part of a collaborative project with James Cook University and were published today in the international journal Marine Pollution Bulletin. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13007959
Tangaroa Blue Foundation first identified the problem during beach cleanup events in 2011, and we tracked weather balloons and their components through cleanups and data collection around the country through the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.
"With both the Federal and State Department of Environment prioritising protection of the Great Barrier Reef, it is shocking to find that another Federal Government agency – the Bureau of Meteorology is releasing pollution both into this World Heritage Area and other sites around the country on a daily basis" said Heidi Taylor, Managing Director from Tangaroa Blue Foundation.
First is the Bureau of Meteorology's weather balloon targets - these are released from between 1-16 times a day from 44 BoM offices around Australia. They consist of a polystyrene target with a silver lining, huge balloon and a rope and torch at night and there is no attempt to retrieve them once they have burst and landed, much of the time, in the ocean.
A report outlining the threats and impacts that the Bureau of Meteorology's weather balloon targets was sent to all state and federal Environment Ministers as well as the Directors of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Bureau of Meteorology in January.
As a result of the report being released several government departments are now in negotiations to implement mitigation strategies which will see a safer and more sustainable way to record such important weather data.
Weather balloons have been released into the environment for decades in order to predict weather patterns and mitigate extreme weather events. They are designed for non-retrieval, and for this reason pose significant and persistent threats once introduced to Australia's coastal and marine environments. Since 2011, Tangaroa Blue Foundation has been identifying weather balloons and their associated components as significant constituents of marine debris recovered from 380 beaches around the country.
The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) release balloons on average two times a day from 44 field stations, of which, 30 are located within 50 km of the coastline. Balloons have been demonstrated to travel up to 250kms from deployment so with conservative estimates that 50% of these deployments near coastal areas will end up in the ocean, this equates to over 32,344 m2 of latex persistently and predictably polluting Australia's marine environment each year. It is critical to identify and collect these shredded latex balloons when encountered, as well as the foil covered polystyrene bases and any other associated parts, like GPS units, batteries and often several meters of rope, which connects the whole rig. Each of these components poses serious threats to marine taxa, which entangle and are ingested, leading to a slow and inevitable death.