Weather Forecasting Suffering Helium Shortage

By Scott Spangler on April 18th, 2022

In early April, the New York Times reported that the National Weather Service has stopped launching weather balloons from nine of its 101 stations in the US and Caribbean because they don’t have enough helium to make the balloons lighter than air. Given the spectrum of weather technology, from Doppler radar to the geosynchronous GOES satellites, the data provided by the anachronistic weather balloons seems inconsequential. But nothing could be further from the truth. Like the hurricane hunters who wing their way into these storms, weather balloons provide essential data on small area conditions that make the computerized weather models more accurate.

The balloons carry radiosondes through a column of air that tops out somewhere around 20 miles, depending on when the 5-foot balloons burst. Normally launched every 12 hours, the radiosondes transmit the temperature, pressure, and relative humidity on the way up; the reusable radiosonde returns via parachute. The NWS feeds this data to the computer models used for short and long-term forecasts and the vast datasets that support climate research. When the NWS announced this situation in late March, it said the shortage of balloon-gathered data would not affect weather forecasts or warnings. (But we should all remember the unforeseen consequences of the distant flapping of butterfly wings.)

While helium, a colorless, odorless, inert gas that produces funny sounding voices when inhaled from party balloons is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, on Earth it is a rare and nonrenewable resource. Usually found in fields of natural gas, like those around Amarillo, Texas, the United States is the largest supplier of the gas. Russia has a processing plant at its natural gas fields, but it suffered a fire in January, the Times article reported. (There was no mention of sanctions on Russian helium, but that seems likely.) Once released into Earth’s atmosphere, helium continues it lighter-than-air ascent into the greater universe.

Hydrogen, which is lighter and more abundant than helium, is a lighter-than-air option for weather balloons. Some stations already launch their radiosondes with it, and it seems logical that its use will expand. Unlike helium, it is a renewable resource, but it has not been immune from supply chain delays. The pandemic has also disrupted another NWS source of small-scale weather data, the commercial airliners equipped with sensors that automatically transmit the atmospheric specifics of their current position. Surely the NWS is as happy as the airlines are to see people flying again.

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