A weather balloon released into the sky to collect data about the atmosphere burst when it couldn't stretch anymore. (Patrick Cullis)

Every year, thousands of weather balloons are launched into U.S. airspace, all in the name of science, and just about every one of them meets the same violent fate.

When the rubber balloons depart terra firma, they are around 5 feet wide. As they slowly climb above the clouds and high into the stratosphere, surrounding air pressure drops and the balloons expand. By the time one gets to 100,000 feet, the bulging orbs have grown to 30 feet across. And that’s when it happens — POP!

Have you ever wondered what that pop looks like? Some curious researchers in Boulder, Colo., did. And with the advent of the GoPro, they decided to send a high-speed camera along for a ride.


Sequence of popping weather balloon at an altitude of about 100,000 feet above Earth. This takes about 0.1 seconds in real-time. (American Meteorological Society and Patrick Cullis, adapted by Capital Weather Gang)

In a recent article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, researchers from the University of Colorado and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a remarkable series of photos of a balloon that looks as if it is passing through a paper shredder. “With a volume 100 times greater than when the balloon was released at ground level, the deflation is not a gentle leak but an explosion!” the authors exclaimed.

The article describes the time of detonation:

As seen in the photos, the balloon begins to shatter at a single point and rapidly shreds symmetrically toward a focus on the opposite side. The ghost image is powder used in the manufacturing process to keep the inner walls of the balloon from sticking together before inflation. Photos of six other balloon bursts show similar point failure with the shredding rubber contracting to a mirror point on the opposite side of the balloon. The time between the first and last of the six frames is 0.1 seconds.


Sequence of popping weather balloon at an altitude of roughly 100,000 feet. (American Meteorological Society and Patrick Cullis (NOAA/CIRES))

Once the balloon bursts, all that is left behind is a “spherical cloud of latex dust,” according to NOAA research assistant Patrick Cullis, who posted the imagery on his photography website.

The images were captured on a GoPro Hero4 Black camera with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,440 pixel frames operating at 48 frames per second. The camera was left dangling 30 feet below the balloon and fell back to Earth with the aid of a parachute. A GPS made it easy to retrieve.

In addition to capturing images of the shattering balloon, Cullis has launched cameras on several flights to obtain beautiful soaring views of the terrain below the launch site in Boulder. “There are no guarantees, and I say goodbye to my camera when I let go just in case, but I’ve been incredibly fortunate with some of the views I’ve been able to collect,” Cullis wrote.

Below are a few of examples, with descriptions from Cullis:

[This] is from a launch I did to capture the setting moon on the horizon. Boulder, Colorado is the main city on the bottom right and the main road cutting up through the center valley to the mountains is I-70. 92,000 feet altitude.


(Patrick Cullis)

[This] is a large panorama of all of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. On the left is Colorado Springs to the south, and on the right is Boulder to the north. 96,000 feet altitude.


(Patrick Cullis)

[This] is a panorama of the Colorado Front Range. This picture is a bit lower at 70,000 feet. Boulder is left-center, Golden is bottom right, and the sprawl of Denver is on the right a bit further from the mountains.


(Patrick Cullis)

The imagery is obtained “high above commercial and military jets, but far, far below the top-down view from satellites,” Cullis said. “98% of all the Earth’s air molecules sit below the camera, leaving the sky inky black.”


A cross section of the atmosphere showing the altitude weather balloons rise to. (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research)