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OU CIMMS Research Associate Nolan Meister releases a weather balloon with instruments attached to measure aspects of the upper atmosphere. (Photo by Mike Coniglio/NOAA NSSL)

Helium shortage impacting weather balloons

Last week, the National Weather Service (NWS) announced that it would be releasing fewer weather balloons due to global supply chain issues impacting their helium orders and contract issues with one of their hydrogen suppliers. As of today, the NWS announced that the contract issues have been resolved, but supply shipments of hydrogen could take up to six weeks to arrive. The helium shortage is ongoing. The nine affected sites, which range from Tallahassee, Florida to Buffalo, New York, will reduce balloon flights to once a day and do away completely with flights on days with good weather. 

“Because of the vital importance of this data, we have been doing everything we can to resolve supply issues,” Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, told Currently.

There is something sweetly antiquated about weather balloons. Charming and slightly spooky, they seem like the kind of technology that should’ve gone the way of the typewriter or the steam engine, but meteorologists have found that they are still among the best (and cheapest) ways of getting accurate weather data. Every day, twice a day, roughly 900 weather balloons are released around the world, carrying small devices called radiosondes that measure atmospheric conditions and transmit data back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) via radio signal.

Their flights usually last around two hours and balloons can rise up to 100,000 feet, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles from their launch sites. When they hit the upper atmosphere the balloon begins to fray, and the radiosonde descends to earth with a tiny parachute. 

One might think this would result in injuries—radiosondes striking down unsuspecting bystanders like meteors—but they only weigh about four ounces, down from two pounds in the 1990’s. In 2015, the bomb squad was called to Northeast Philadelphia when a radiosonde landed on a car. There are also weather balloon enthusiasts who hunt them down with HAM radios, but, for the most part, the radiosondes are lost after they make their descent. 

While the National Weather Service claimed the disruption to their helium and hydrogen supplies would not affect weather forecasting, scientists are skeptical. 

“We can’t go back and get that data,” Sandra Yuter, a professor at North Carolina State University, told the New York Times. “We’re going to have big gaps.”


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