High-altitude balloon takes path to Carolina coastline

After days of traversing the United States, images showed the suspected Chinese high-altitude balloon over the Carolinas Saturday morning, first over Asheville, North Carolina, and then near Charlotte.

Saturday afternoon, the balloon is expected to drift off of the Carolina coast into the Atlantic Ocean, where potential United States national defense action may take place, with the presence of military aircraft noted through flight-tracking websites. According to CNN, the Pentagon has not confirmed that any of the U.S. military aircraft in the area is related to defense action regarding the balloon.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop for airports in Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as Charleston, South Carolina, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, "to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort," with airspace near Myrtle Beach also restricted between 12:45 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. EST.

AccuWeather meteorologists have analyzed the possible path of the suspected Chinese high-altitude balloon that was spotted over the Billings, Montana, area on Wednesday evening and then over the central Plains at the end of the week.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed Friday that the balloon is a "civilian airship" used mainly for weather research that had strewn from its planned course, CNN reported. The statement was the first admission that the balloon had originated in China since the Pentagon had announced it was tracking the airship on Thursday.

"It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure," the Chinese foreign ministry said, according to CNN.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple of days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm to people on the ground, officials said Thursday. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

"We are not aware of weather balloons that have the reported characteristics of this large, high-altitude balloon," AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter said.

While the exact altitude is unclear, high-altitude balloons typically fly around 60,000 feet or higher -- a level at which the balloons fly above the jet stream -- or the fast-moving current of air that guides the movement of weather systems -- and above the altitude commercial airlines would fly.

Porter pointed out that if the balloon was flying at an altitude greater than 70,000 feet, it could have taken a track to the west from Montana instead of traversing the central and eastern United States.

"Weather balloons are used in a variety of ways to monitor current atmospheric conditions and collect data for research," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan DePodwin said.

These balloons record everything from temperature, humidity and wind speed, which can be used by weather forecast models to predict the movement of weather systems.

"At some point, typically after the balloon reaches over 50,000 feet, the balloon bursts and the small payload of weather instruments fall slowly back to earth," DePodwin said. "There are also weather balloons that stay aloft for longer periods of time at higher altitudes with some able to maneuver between altitudes. These also measure the atmosphere and are typically for research purposes."

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