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Helium shortage hampers critical weather balloon launches

Saturday, February 26th 2022, 5:15 pm - A helium shortage forced one weather office to cut down on the number of critical weather balloons it launches every day.

Starting on March 1st, the world will have one less weather balloon to gather important data about our atmosphere—for a little while, at least. A U.S. National Weather Service office in Florida had to cut back on weather balloon launches due to an ongoing helium shortage, the office announced on Friday. The announcement underscores the critical role these simple tools play in everyday weather forecasting.

GAS SHORTAGE HAMPERS BALLOON LAUNCHES IN NORTHERN FLORIDA

The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) office in Tallahassee, Florida, issued a statement on Friday announcing the office would cut its twice-daily weather balloon launches down to a single launch each day.

Florida Weather Balloon Launch Sites

“Due to a nationwide helium supply shortage, we will be unable to regularly launch two weather balloons per day,” the agency said in its statement.

Many weather balloon sites use hydrogen to give their balloons lift.

That’s not an option for NWS Tallahassee, though.

The office, which is headquartered on the campus of Florida State University, has to use helium instead of hazardous hydrogen for safety reasons. “The majority of NWS offices use hydrogen as they are away from sensitive places,” the agency said on Twitter.

HELIUM IS A FINITE RESOURCE IN SHORT SUPPLY

Helium is a non-renewable resource that’s harvested during natural gas production.

The gas, which is one of the coldest substances on Earth in its liquid form, is in short supply to begin with and it’s extremely difficult to store. Any helium that escapes can’t be recaptured—in fact, it escapes Earth’s atmosphere and vents right into outer space.

It’s not just used to keep balloons afloat, either. Scientists use liquid helium in everything from rocket fuel to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in hospitals.

High demand and short supply have created several helium shortages in recent years, including the current disruption that forced NWS Tallahassee to conserve its resources.

WEATHER BALLOONS ARE A CRITICAL TOOL

Weather balloons are a vital part of the weather forecasting process.

Scientists and automated stations work together to launch balloons twice a day from hundreds of sites around the world, including more than 100 launch sites across the United States and Canada combined.

A package attached to the balloon, called a radiosonde, contains instruments to track temperature, dew point, wind speed, wind direction, altitude, and air pressure.

The radiosonde relays this information back to ground stations, giving meteorologists a detailed look at weather from the surface to the top of the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere where almost all weather occurs.

Plotting out the data from the world’s twice-daily balloon launches can reveal important atmospheric features, such as the location and strength of the jet stream.

All this data gets ingested into weather models to help these computer algorithms understand what the atmosphere is doing now so they can help meteorologists predict the weather over the coming days.

WATCH: HOW AUTOMATED STATIONS RELEASE WEATHER BALLOONS

Meteorologists often order extra balloon launches during high-stakes weather events such as tornado outbreaks or impending hurricanes in order to help forecasters and computer models get a better handle on the situation.

The lack of a single balloon per day from the NWS office on the Florida Panhandle won’t affect the quality of weather forecasts, though.

“The reduction of launches will have no impact on severe weather operations or our ability to warn on dangerous storms in accordance with our mission to protect life and property,” NWS Tallahassee added in its announcement.

While weather balloons are a critical tool for meteorologists to understand the atmosphere, the release of hundreds of thousands of balloons every year poses an environmental hazard for the world’s wildlife both on land and at sea.

After a weather balloon finally pops, the shredded balloon and its radiosonde gently drift back to the ground using a small parachute. These devices can be recovered and sent back to their responsible launch agency when someone stumbles across one.

However, many of these balloons are never recovered, especially in Canada, where about 90 per cent of the country’s vast lands are uninhabited. There’s currently no feasible substitute for the accuracy and efficacy of the data acquired by these balloon launches.

Thumbnail courtesy of NWS Charleston, S.C.

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