14 February 2023

Going Viral Is A Pain

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Last week I saw the news about this balloon from China passing over Montana, and when the Defense Department said it was from China, I thought, let’s see if it was!

Turns out NOAA has a numerical weather model called the NOAA-HYSPLIT which will backward forecast (based on what the winds aloft were) to show you where the air over you now was a few days ago. I tend to use it to see the source region of a cold airmass, or to trace smoke in the air back to a wildfire in the West.

A few times, a farmer has called after finding a weather balloon from NOAA, and HYSPLIT told me which forecast office likely launched the balloon.

With this in mind, I decided to track backward in time the path of this so-called spy balloon to see where it was from. Using central Montana since those were the reports at the time, I got the model output you see below:

Looks like China!

I posted a short note about this on Twitter, and a few hours later when I checked Twitter again, my post had hundreds of thousands of views. To make a long story short, by the time I checked my personal email late Friday, I had interview requests from the NY Times, Sky, CNN, and the BBC.

The BBC program was PM on Radio 4 (which I have listened to for many years), so I sent them a note and did a quick talkback with them Saturday afternoon. Radio 4 is probably the best radio station on the planet ;).

Can I just say here that going viral on Twitter is a pain. My initial post is now at 2.3 million views, and it brought out a swarm of bug-eyed conspiracy theorists. On a positive note, some of the comments were entertaining enough for a soft drink and popcorn.

Now, I know little about spy satellites, but I’ve seen quite a few weather balloons launched and helped/filmed one going up from the South Pole. Some of the comments in the media today have been rather funny. Let’s just say that taking physics courses does change one’s view of the world.

Note to the retired general who was quoted in a major paper saying these spy balloons can hover over an area: I’d like to see a balloon the size of 3 buses hover in a 125-knot wind.

I also read that it was maneuvered over important military sights. I can tell you that it flowed right with the winds aloft across the country. I did a forecast track on HYSPLIT when it was spotted over Kansas City, and the track showed it crossing the coast north of Myrtle Beach Saturday.

That is exactly what happened. Here is the track below:

Now, NASA has some really big balloons that can carry a lot of weight. I saw the Boomerang project balloon in Antarctica. It carried a telescope to measure the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. That thing can lift several thousand pounds! They were still using it in 2010 for experiments. and it is FAR larger than what we saw fall into the Atlantic on 4 February.

If this was a spy balloon, it makes me wonder why they would do it. China has a bunch of spy satellites with better than 5 meter resolution that fly over the U.S. daily, and  I’m certain the military has already covered over anything important (You have right??). One person told me that “this balloon might fly over the Pentagon!”

I downloaded this view of the Pentagon from the Defense Department. It was easier than launching a spy balloon.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a plane ticket into National Airport? You get a great view of the Pentagon most of the time!

Then there were the “It will set off an EMP!”. Isn’t that what ICBM’s are for? Both sides have plenty, but I hope they do not use them!

As I said, I do not know anything about spying, but I do know a little physics and a lot about high-altitude winds. It seems to me that too many people are reading self-published apocalypse books on Kindle Unlimited.

Lastly, the White House spokesperson on Monday felt compelled to tell the assembled media (they asked!) that there was no hint that these balloons were from aliens. Only in America would that happen, and only in America would a good chunk of the population not believe them!

Take a few seconds and give some mental sympathy to those walking around with a modicum of critical thinking skills. We could use it.