Making science soar in Albuquerque

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Spectators gather around hot-air balloons of varying designs at the 2018 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M. on November 7.

Inspired by a rainbow of flying orbs buoyed by flaming jets and coasting on the Albuquerque breeze, Kai and Hunter Wilson rush to pilot their own hot air balloon.

Not a real hot air balloon, of course. The young brothers get to work setting aloft a mini gondola suspended beneath a helium balloon at the 7-Eleven Balloon Discovery Center, where visitors to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta can experiment with the scientific principles behind hot air ballooning.

“We’ve come every year for about seven years, and this is always my favorite part,” says their mother, Marina Wilson, motioning to the balloon levitating above her son’s head. “This interaction with the kids makes it all worth it.”

Why We Wrote This

Visitors to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., can experiment with the scientific principles behind hot-air ballooning.

For almost 50 years, the annual balloon fiesta has attracted millions of visitors to the Land of Enchantment to see the world’s largest ascension of hot air balloons. In recent years, the fiesta has developed into an educational event, teaching visitors about atmospheric science – a difficult topic to grasp, say scientists, but one that is increasingly important to understand amid climate change.

“[The discovery center] comes from the whole educational philosophy of trying to get kids interested in science, and let them know there is science behind ballooning,” says Barbara Fricke, a member of the fiesta’s board of directors. She says the center has grown a lot in recent years.

“It used to be an old balloon that people could put their hands on, and now they try to educate,” says Ms. Fricke.

To kick off the festivities, pilots launched balloons from more than 100 area elementary schools, introducing students to the science behind ballooning. And at the nine-day fiesta, visitors can visit the discovery center to learn about what makes Albuquerque ideal for ballooning.

In the pop-up discovery center, visitors catalog experiments in “passport” books. Last year the tent ordered 10,000 passports, says staffer George Carrillo Jr. They ran out before the end of the week.

“The majority [of visitors] are kids,” says Mr. Carrillo, “but even the adults come back and say, ‘We learned so much about science.’”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Pigs fly – or at least one pig floats – at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Inside the Albuquerque box

Thousands of spectators hold a collective breath as a trial balloon rises to test flying conditions for hundreds of balloons lying limp on the grass.

As the rising sun begins to turn the Sandia Mountains watermelon pink, the trial balloon pilot signals to ground staff to raise a green flag. Guests exhale a sigh of relief – their 5 a.m. (or earlier) wake-up alarm was worth it. Balloons will fly today.

Pilots will only ascend in perfect conditions. Fortunately for local ballooners, the Rio Grande Valley hosts a rare confluence of wind, temperature, and aridity each October, giving Albuquerque the nickname “the ballooning capital of the world.”

Because balloon pilots can only control the vertical direction of their balloon, they depend on wind currents to move horizontally. The balloons launch just after sunrise, when the air is cold, the sky is clear, the wind is calm, and they have the best chance of finding the weather phenomenon known as the Albuquerque box.

“There’s this box circulation that the balloonists love and that only sets up once or twice during the balloon fiesta period,” says David Gutzler, a climatologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

When the Albuquerque box is active, cool, low-altitude surface winds trapped near the Rio Grande Valley floor push balloons south toward downtown.

The pilots ascend into the sky by lighting a flame above the gondola, heating the air inside the balloon to rise above the cooler air. Upon reaching a higher altitude, the balloon can hitch a ride on the warmer air currents above the Sandia Mountains and sail north before descending again to catch the low-altitude surface winds and complete a boxlike course.

“On the perfect box day, you can land your balloon right where you took off,” says Dr. Gutzler.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
A balloonist heats the envelope of a hot-air balloon at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

A bridge to climate science

Across the launchpad, a field large enough to fit 56 football fields, young families stroll among swelling balloons. They eat cheesy arepas hot off the griddle and warm their hands on cups of coffee. The valley’s cold morning air is necessary for the balloons, but it can still numb guests who wear hats and winter coats.

This year’s fiesta attracted almost 900,000 guests, the majority of them from out of state. And while the fiesta has become an international cultural event, many guests are drawn as much by the science as by the spectacle.

“He loves science,” says Sonja Ramirez, gesturing to her vigorously nodding son. “We were talking about it earlier, what makes [the balloons] go up and why we have them here in Albuquerque.”

But just as the global temperature has steadily risen in recent decades, temperatures during the fiesta have gradually risen, too, since the first event in 1972. Locals comment that the fiesta morning chill loses a bit of its bite each year.

Time spent in the fiesta’s discovery center can help the public to understand the science behind those climatic changes.

“Thinking about ballooning, and what goes into something like the balloon fiesta, all of that is a straightforward application of atmospheric physics,” he says. “We apply that same basic thinking to climate change.”

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