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Weather Balloon Causes a Scare in Arlington Neighborhood

A wayward weather balloon landed in a neighborhood near the East Falls Church Metro station today, frightening some residents and prompting the bomb squad to be called to the scene.

Police and Arlington County’s bomb squad were dispatched to the 6800 block of 19th Road N. just before 2 p.m. today, after a resident reported finding a tube with blinking lights in the front yard of a home, near an entrance to the W&OD Trail.

The entire package, which was deemed suspicious, consisted of a tube, two small boxes and an orange parachute. The bomb squad response was scaled back, however, after a police officer reported finding the words “harmless weather instrument” and information about its origin — which checked out. A bomb-sniffing dog also checked out the devices but did not finding anything of concern, according to scanner traffic.

No one was hurt by the device’s landing, though one cyclist nearly struck it while heading to the trail.

The styrofoam boxes attached to the balloon were wrapped with information about the device — which turned out to be a radiosonde that measures and broadcasts weather conditions from the various layers of the atmosphere back to the offices of the National Weather Service. The data is used to help computer models generate weather forecasts.

Ray Martin, a meteorologist with the Baltimore/Washington NWS office in Sterling, Va., said the office launches balloons twice a day. As the balloon gains altitude, it expands and then finally pops, sending it back down to the ground, slowed by an attached parachute.

Often the balloons are found in remote areas, but landings in the immediate D.C. metro area are not uncommon.

“It definitely happens,” Martin said, noting that the balloon was most likely launched by the Sterling office, though forecasters do not track the exact location balloons after launch. Sometimes the balloon payloads land a far distance away, he said.

Weather balloons and the instruments they carry are nontoxic and disposable, Martin said, though the one that landed in East Falls Church carried a prepaid postal pouch for it to be returned to the National Weather Service. Residents who find the remnants of popped weather balloons need not be alarmed, said Martin, and they can even keep what they find as a unique souvenir if they want.

Vernon Miles contributed to this report. Map via Google Maps.

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