Could A Helium Shortage Degrade Weather Forecasts?

While casually browsing Twitter this weekend, I noticed a Tweet that may have been overlooked by many people. However, it immediately worried me. The National Weather Service Boston office tweeted, “Because of an ongoing helium shortage Chathams upper air soundings will limited to once a day at 12Z until further notice.” You might be asking what an “upper air sounding is and why is helium relevant.” Herein, I provide answers to these questions and a broader perspective on why helium shortages could lead to degradation in weather forecast quality. Vertical measurement of atmospheric data is called a sounding. Such information is obtained by weather balloons launched at least twice daily from nearly 900 global locations. Most people are familiar with weather instruments that collect surface information like temperature, humidity, pressure and winds. However, computer models require information on the three-dimensional atmosphere to make accurate predictions. Weather balloons carry a box of weather instruments called a radiosonde. As it ascends, it sends data back at various levels of the atmosphere to the various weather services. From weather balloon data, meteorologists can diagnose upper atmospheric conditions, identify jet stream patterns, wind shear, stability and so forth. This data, along with information from satellites and other data sources, initialize the computer models. This “starting point” for the atmosphere is important as complex equations are solved to forecast what that same atmosphere looks like 1, 3 or 7 days forward in time. That, in a nutshell folks, is how numerical weather prediction (American vs European model “stuff”) is done. For an excellent primer on weather forecasting, I highly recommend the discussion at this iWEATHERNET.COM website. The National Weather Service Boston further tweeted, “The all important upper air soundings are the backbone of weather models….”

U.S. weather balloon network

So what’s going on with the helium shortage? Helium is critical in many uses beyond launching balloons at birthday parties and other events. According to the BBC, helium is critical in medical uses like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the production of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) for televisions or computer screens, and the manufacturing of computer chips. As we have now established, helium is also important for weather balloon operations. Party City depends on helium for its party and decoration business. Its website actually has good information on the helium shortage:

The current trouble with the world’s helium supply is the result of multiple factors. Production plant closures, an embargo in Qatar in 2017 and a gradual sell-off of America’s strategic helium reserves have all put pressure on the industry. This, combined with increasing global demand and other factors, has led to some of the issues with the helium market today.

Party City website

Helium enrichment plant near Amarillo, Texas

Helium is actually the second most abundant of the elements, but it doesn’t reside in the air like nitrogen or oxygen. It is so light that it easily escapes to space. Roughly three-fourths of the world supply of helium is trapped underground in Texas, Wyoming, and Qatar according to the Party City website. This link provides a comprehensive list of other helium sources. New sources of helium are being sought but establishing the mining infrastructure is a slow process, so the shortage is a real concern. There is no imminent threat of mass interruptions in weather balloon launches. However, Amanda Schmidt, a staff writer at AccuWeather, wrote in July that the National Weather Service Raleigh was limiting balloon launches to expected extreme weather events because its helium supplier was dealing with the shortage. While this makes sense, the meteorologist in me knows that any denial of the “slightest wrinkle of information” in the models can have an impact downstream in the atmosphere. Though helium-based balloons are the standard at this time, NOAA is working on alternatives such as hydrogen-filled balloons and new technologies such as Vaisala’s Autosondes. The next time you plan your next event with balloons, please think carefully about the helium shortage. I am sure there are alternatives out there for you too.

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