LINCOLN, Ill. (WMBD) — When it comes to severe weather, meteorologists have many tools at their disposal for forecasting and tracking storms.

Model data, surface observations, radar, and satellite data are all useful on severe weather alert days. However, there is one instrument that takes a look at the atmosphere in a way those other options cannot.

Twice a day, the National Weather Service (NWS) Office in Lincoln releases weather balloons with a special instrument attached called a radiosonde.

This tool collects information about temperature, dew point, and wind as the balloon rises through the atmosphere.

“Not many observations of upper air data. There is some satellite-derived data that can help, but really the radiosondes are about the only true measurement of actually what’s going on through the entire depth of the atmosphere at any given time,” said NWS Lincoln Meteorologist Chuck Schaffer.

And in some instances, an additional launch might be needed.

“When there’s a situation where severe weather is expected, we can launch radiosondes a few hours before the severe weather is expected to develop, and that will give us a better idea of the exact state of the atmosphere ahead of the storms that are developing or moving into the area,” said Schaffer.

Retrieving and analyzing this upper air data is critical for possibly adjusting forecasts.

“Many times, we’ll have a warm layer of air aloft that kind of suppresses the thunderstorm activity, and we could do one of these weather balloons launches and see how that warm layer has either eroded or in some cases strengthened so yeah those things are really critical,” said Schaffer.

The information it retrieves is important not only for that office’s forecasts, but also for other sites downstream of where storms are expected to develop.

“Oftentimes [if] the air mass [is] here, [in] another hour or two, it will be over Chicago or moving into Indiana. So yes, they are very interested in what that data says and how things have changed,” said Schaffer.

Want to learn more? The severe weather special, Storm Training 101, will debut on WMBD Thursday at 4 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. on WYZZ.