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

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

Witset chosen for housing innovation funding program

Proposal to build healing lodge for at-risk youth one of four selected in B.C.

Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and hereditary chiefs agree to future meeting

Scott Fraser was in Smithers on Jan. 22 and spoke with Office of the Wet’suwet’en representatives

Unist’ot’en Camp say RCMP have changed 27 kilometre roadblock rules

Footage shows RCMP telling an unidentified lawyer they can’t re-enter the checkpoint

B.C. Indigenous communities receive funding for hands-on trades training

Nuxalk, Witset, Penticton Indian Band, TRU Williams Lake, and Camosun College among beneficiaries

Telkwa bridge struck by empty logging truck

The truck hit the bridge on its east side and appears to have damaged a wooden beam

VIDEO: Mass coronavirus quarantines seen in China won’t happen in Canada, authorities say

‘If a case comes here, and it is probably … it will still be business as normal’

Province’s oldest practising lawyer shares advice at her 100th birthday party

Firefighters bring Constance Isherwood a cake with 100 birthday candles

Vernon woman suing McDonald’s for spilled coffee

Woman seeking nearly $10K, says employee failed to put lid on properly

Diners’ health tax not catching on in B.C., restaurant group says

Small businesses look for options to cover employer health tax

B.C. comic wins judgment after club owner slaps cellphone out of his hands

Incident happened last summer when Garrett Clark was performing in Abbotsford

Mayors call for ‘calmness’ as highway rockslide cuts Tofino, Ucluelet off from supplies

Ministry of transportation expects to open road for “essential travel only” from noon-8 p.m. Friday.

Owner surrenders dog suffering from days-old gunshot wound to B.C. SPCA

The dog was also found to be emaciated and suffering from a flea infestation

B.C. man dies after police called for ‘firearms injury’ in rural Alberta

Victim is 30-year-old Greater Victoria man, say police

Most Read