Chris Arends prepares the drone for flight. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Chris Arends prepares the drone for flight. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Weather balloon from California rescued near Campbell River

Search led rescuers to remote wilderness on Quadra Island

When the call came in, the people at Quadra Island Kayaks didn’t quite know what to think. It was an odd request to be sure.

A climate company from California had flown a balloon up the Pacific Coast and it had landed – according to their data – at the northern tip of Quadra Island.

Quadra Island Kayaks assembled a team of four, including owner Chris Arends and kayak guide Christian Gianfagna and set out with a couple sets of GPS coordinates to find the balloon.

They drove about 20 minutes and then hiked into the dense forest for a few hours.

“It was the middle of nowhere,” said Gianfagna.

They couldn’t find anything and returned to the van in the dark.

The request to find the balloon had come from Gilroy, Calif., about a two-hour drive south of San Francisco. The startup, WindBorne Systems had been testing to see how different the wind forecast from the American National Weather Service was from reality.

The company, founded by a group of Stanford graduates, is aiming to improve the quality of weather data gathered in places no one goes, like over oceans and deserts.

“We’re fundamentally a climate company,” said CEO Paige Brown. “We’re trying to help humanity adapt to climate change by getting weather data in places were people usually can’t access it.”

WindBorne Systems’ balloons are about nine feet tall and are attached to a unit the size of a milk jug that gathers all the data.

The team on Quadra Island sets out again a few days later. They’re better equipped this time with a drone, a saw, and some climbing equipment. They park the van – a lookalike to Mr. T’s GMC, earning them the nickname “The A Team” – and head into the heavy bush again. They follow a set of GPS coordinates rather than a set trail and make their way through the woods past fresh cougar tracks, through mud and swamps, gaining and losing elevation. They get chased by a swarm of wasps.

While the group of four enjoys spending time hiking and paddling outdoors, they have never explored this part of Quadra Island and aren’t familiar with the terrain.

“It was pretty fun,” said Gianfagna, “but it was also pretty dangerous.”

This year, WindBorne has sent about 35 balloons into the air to collect wind speed and direction data. In this prototype phase, they’re trying to get all the balloons back to analyze what Chief Product Officer Kai Marshland calls “high resolution data.”

Their balloons have travelled all over the U.S. and Mexico and have even made it across the Atlantic Ocean to Morocco.

Brown said they’ll try to find the balloons themselves or ask family and friends to help. Brown’s dad and grandfather have found balloons before and so has Marshland’s grandfather. Next, they’ll reach out to someone local.

Quadra Island is the fourth time a balloon has touched down in Canada. They’ve also had them land in Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

In their Pacific Coast experiment, the team discovers that the National Weather Service prediction is off by about 30 per cent.

“This was a big indication that the wind data out over the ocean isn’t very good and there’s a lot of room for us to improve the way weather is predicted,” said Marshland.

Windborne Systems is able to fly the balloons kind of like a sailboat, rising and falling to catch different wind currents.

“As it flies, we can continue to make better predictions because our balloon is collecting that wind data that let’s us figure out where it’s going to go next,” said Marshland.

With a few dozen flights under their belt, the team at WindBorne is looking at scaling up. While there are other weather companies out there, Brown said no one is taking the same approach as them – flying low-cost small latex balloons. Soon they hope to add temperature and humidity data to their collecting. Then they will have all the ingredients for a full-blown weather forecast.

Once the data from a payload is analyzed, they can essentially hit a reset button, swap out the batteries and send it up again to collect more data on another flight.

They didn’t want the balloon to continue north and end up as pollution in the ocean or the mountains, so they brought it down in a remote corner of Quadra Island.

It’s later in the day and the A Team has all but given up.

Gianfagna hikes up a cliff and looks out over the late August forest, already turning yellow in splotches. In the distance he sees a yellow blob – it could be a balloon, or after two days of searching, his eyes could just be playing tricks.

“All I could see was just a little yellow sort of thing,” he said. “We thought we’d seen it about 100 times.”

They take out a pair of binoculars and a drone to confirm the sighting. Sure enough, caught in a branch about 40 metres up a tree is the deflated latex balloon with its payload dangling underneath.

“If I stepped one foot to the left, one foot to the right, I couldn’t see it,” he said. “I could just see it from the exact spot I was standing.”

Spotting the balloon may have been the easiest part. Next, they had to figure out how to get it down. Not wanting to fall any trees, they climbed a nearby cliff instead and lassoed the tree, bending it toward them. Then, a member of the team scaled a nearby tree and knocked the unit out of the tree with a branch.

“It was a bit of an effort,” said Gianfagna.

With unit in hand, they trudged back to the van, posed for some photos with it and shipped it back to the States.

All in all, said Gianfagna, it was a “proper adventure.”

RELATED:

Quadra hikers found after two days in the wild

Woman donates her land as nature reserve on Quadra Island


@marissatiel
marissa.tiel@campbellrivermirror.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

A sampling of past routes WindBorne Systems’ balloons have taken, including the Quadra Island balloon. Photo courtesy of WindBorne Systems

A sampling of past routes WindBorne Systems’ balloons have taken, including the Quadra Island balloon. Photo courtesy of WindBorne Systems

Christian Gianfagna (far left) and Chris Arends (far right) were among the ‘A Team’ that rescued a Californian weather balloon in a remote area on Quadra Island this summer. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Christian Gianfagna (far left) and Chris Arends (far right) were among the ‘A Team’ that rescued a Californian weather balloon in a remote area on Quadra Island this summer. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Just Posted

The data from the latest BCCDC reporting period. Image courtesy of B.C. Centre for Disease Control
Cluster mostly confined to Fernie: Sparwood Mayor

David Wilks said only a handful of cases were elsewhere in the Elk Valley

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Interior Health reports 2 more deaths, 83 new COVID-19 cases

Health authority also identifies new virus cluster in Fernie

Downtown Fernie is pictured after a snowfall.
South Columbia Search and Rescue called in the Nelson Search and Rescue and Kootenay Valley Helicopters to provide a long line rescue. Photo: BCSAR submitted.
Long-line rescue needed for injured hiker near Trail

Members of South Columbia and Nelson SAR and Kootenay Valley Helicopters did a long-line evacuation

A sign indicating a COVID-19 testing site is displayed inside a parking garage in West Nyack, N.Y., Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The site was only open to students and staff of Rockland County schools in an effort to test enough people to keep the schools open for in-person learning. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
4 more deaths, 54 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

This brings the total to 66 deaths in the region

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart share a laugh while speaking to the media before sitting down for a meeting at City Hall, in Vancouver, on Friday August 30, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Vancouver mayor, Health Canada to formally discuss drug decriminalization

Kennedy Stewart says he’s encouraged by the federal health minister’s commitment to work with the city

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Kamloops hospital grows to 66 cases

A majority of cases remain among staff at Royal Inland Hospital

Most Read