Last Thursday, just before 3 p.m., things began stirring inside the truck-size box that sat among melting piles of snow at the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska. Inside, software ran checks on instruments to measure atmospheric temperature, humidity, and pressure; a tray slid into place; and a nozzle began filling a large balloon with gas. Finally, the roof of the box yawned open and a weather balloon took off into the sunny afternoon, instruments dangling. The entire launch was triggered with the touch of a button, 5 kilometers away at an office of the National Weather Service (NWS).
The flight was smooth, just one of hundreds of twice-daily balloon launches around the world that radio back crucial data for weather forecasts. But most of those balloons are launched by people; the robotic launchers, which are rolling out across Alaska, are proving to be controversial. NWS says the autolaunchers will save money and free up staff to work on more pressing matters. But representatives of the employee union question their reliability, and say they will hasten the end of Alaska's remote weather offices, where forecasting duties and hours have already been slashed. "The autolauncher is just another nail in their coffin," says Kimberly Vaughan, a union steward in Juneau.
Autolaunchers have operated around the world for decades, but NWS has just begun to use them. Its demonstration project in Alaska began last October, in Kodiak. Fairbanks is the second site to get one, and the agency will install them at 11 other locations, ending with Nome in 2020, says Susan Buchanan, an NWS spokesperson in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Margaret Mooney, a former NWS meteorologist who is now the director for education and public outreach at the University of Wisconsin's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies in Madison, says automation makes sense. "I remember walking outside at 3 a.m. when the temperature was 20 below zero, thinking there must be a better way to do weather observations, and sure enough, there is," she says. Moreover, she adds, measurements from Alaska are indispensable for national forecasts because they are "upstream for most of the United States."
Once deployed across the state, the $1.2 million machines, built by Finnish company Vaisala, will save about 8 hours of forecaster time a day—and about $1 million a year at NWS, Buchanan says. That's because the agency tries to staff each remote site with three people, but job vacancies mean overworked employees are shuffled around the vast state to keep up. "We have a difficult time recruiting people to go to these locations," Buchanan says. Recently, some stations have skipped scheduled launches.
Now, Buchanan says, NWS will need just one person at each remote site, to serve as a community liaison and to reload the autolauncher every 12 days. The other staff will relocate to bigger offices, like the ones in Anchorage or Fairbanks, where they can retrain for missions such as forecasting sea ice conditions and volcanic ash hazards, she says. The agency also plans to scale back office space and housing at the remote sites.
Vaughan argues, however, that the plan perpetuates a loss of local knowledge and jobs, adding that the vacancy problem is self-inflicted. She says few people want to work at the remote stations because the remaining positions are temporary and low-paying. She also worries that the machines could malfunction and, without human backups, miss launches.
Dan Sobien, president of the Washington, D.C.–based NWS Employees Organization, fears that if autolaunchers spread to other states, they could help pave the way for further consolidation. He says slow hiring has left roughly 560 positions unfilled nationwide, and he suspects the technology may factor into potential plans to reduce hours and duties at some of NWS's 122 forecasting offices. "In order to do that, they can't have people in there launching balloons," Sobien says.
Buchanan says NWS has funding for only eight autolaunchers outside of Alaska, and that talk of proliferation is premature. But President Donald Trump's administration has called for cutting 355 additional positions from NWS in its 2019 budget proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees NWS, and it wants to improve the agency's flexibility and efficiency. "Technology and better business practices at the weather service will allow us to absorb the reductions in people in this budget," acting NOAA Administrator Tim Gallaudet said in Washington, D.C., at an 11 April congressional budget hearing.