Wildfires helped scientists discover jet stream in ‘40s

On several days during the second week of September, the sky had a milky-tinged color and the setting sun was a strange hue. The billowing smoke which blanketed the west coast began settling into the atmosphere thousands of miles away along the east coast. Propelled by the jet stream and a high-pressure system over the Great Lakes, the smoke arrived in our area.

While out for a walk one evening, I noticed the odd color of the setting sun and knew it was the result of the smoke from the western forest fires. I told Mary Alice that I could even smell smoke but it was probably my imagination.

Each evening our weather person on television attempts to forecast the coming weather, while showing a chart of the jet stream. Although knowing about the jet stream has made predicting the weather more accurate, it has not always been that way.

According to the book “Earth’s Aura” by Louise B. Young, on a cold December morning in 1944, two lumbermen in Montana found a large deflated balloon which was made of a parchment-like paper. Although a portion of the balloon had burned, an emblem showing the sign of the Rising Sun could still be seen on a portion of the balloon. Since we were at war with Japan the balloon caused quite a stir, prompting the Army Air Force and F.B.I. to be called in to investigate.

From the information printed on the balloon, it was learned it was built in a Japanese factory on Oct. 31, 1944. However, the experts could hardly believe this balloon had been launched from Japan, crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States, and was found 465 miles inland.

The balloon, which had been filled with hydrogen, could probably have carried 18,000 cubic feet of gas, enough to provide sufficient lift to transport several men and equipment for sabotage. Speculations ran rampant. Had the balloon carried saboteurs? Perhaps German soldiers wearing American clothing and carrying fake identification were passengers on the balloon?

A few weeks later the government admitted two more balloons had been found. One balloon found in Oregon was discovered by a group of Sunday school children. Several of the children poked at the balloon and when turning it over, the balloon suddenly burst into flames, killing five children and the pastor’s wife, who was in charge of the outing.

The armed forces had been hearing reports of balloons and fireballs being sighted along the western part of the United States. There were reports of balloons seen, releasing objects high in the air. Also bomb blasts were heard in remote areas of Wyoming and California. Reports from Mexico, Canada and Alaska mentioned that as many as 17 balloons had been seen in one day, with many dropping incendiary bombs. Forest fires suddenly became so numerous that the army was called to help in fighting the fires.

Our military personnel could not believe that these balloons being seen and found in our country were released in Japan. One thought was the balloons were being released from a submarine off the Pacific coast. Attempts to shoot down the balloons were unsuccessful since bullets did not seem to have any effect. The balloons continued to sail majestically onward even after being riddled with bullets. Finally, in 1945, an Air Force pilot maneuvered a balloon to the ground, by flying in tight circles around the balloon. A study revealed the fact that the balloon had been launched in Japan.

After the war, it was learned that the Japanese had discovered a remarkable swift current of air which blew eastward at great heights, straight toward the west coast of America. The Japanese used this air current (now known as the jet stream) to launch balloons high in the atmosphere in Japan.

These balloons, which carried incendiary and antipersonnel bombs, were programmed to drop their cargo after making the 5,000-mile trip. The Japanese made only one mistake: using a wet-cell battery to operate the electronic equipment. These batteries froze in the sub-zero temperatures of the jet stream. Due to this, only 1/10 of the 9,000 balloons released in Japan ever reached the United States.

Our government asked the press and radio for voluntary censorship, and only three balloon sightings were reported by the news media. The Japanese General Staff believed only three of the 9,000 balloons made the trip successfully. However, the balloons were successful enough to give our military a bad scare.

After the war, scientists from all over the world followed up on this interesting air movement discovery. Through experiments it was found that there are seven characteristic jet streams; however, not all occur at the same time of the year. These jet streams follow undulating courses around the earth at altitudes of 6 to 30 miles. The jet stream exists where strong temperature differences occur on long fronts. The four principle jet streams are located near tropopause, a point of abrupt temperature change. Along these meeting places of hot and cold air masses, the air flows from warm to the cold side, trying to equalize the difference.

The jet stream which flows from Japan to the United States is known as the polar-front jet stream, which is the lowest of the jet streams, being only six or seven miles high. It is not surprising that this was the first jet stream to be discovered.

Winds of 300 miles per hour have been measured in this jet stream. Unlike our violent winds on earth which roar down our mountains, rattling our windows, and making the pine trees moan and whisper, the jet stream does not make any sound because there is nothing for it to blow against.

A few decades ago, rivers of air passing overhead at fantastic speeds were unheard of. Since discovered we have been able to understand our weather and predict the movement of weather fronts. Airline pilots have used these rivers of air as tail-winds, cutting down on travel time and fuel costs.


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