Saturday, February 26, 2022, 5:15 p.m. – A helium shortage has forced a weather bureau to reduce the number of critical weather balloons it launches each day.
From March 1, the world will have one less weather balloon to collect important data about our atmosphere, at least for a little while. A U.S. National Weather Service office in Florida has had to cut weather balloon launches due to a shortage of helium, the office said on Friday. The announcement highlights the vital role these simple tools play in daily weather forecasting.
GAS SHORTAGE LEADS TO BALLOON LAUNCHES IN NORTHERN FLORIDA
The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) office in Tallahassee, Florida, released a statement on Friday announcing that the office would reduce its twice-daily weather balloon launches to one launch per day.
“Due to a nationwide helium shortage, we will not be able to regularly launch two weather balloons per day,” the agency said in its statement.
Many hot air balloon sites use hydrogen to launch their balloons.
That’s not an option for NWS Tallahassee, though.
The office, which is headquartered on the Florida State University campus, must use helium instead of hazardous hydrogen for safety reasons. “The majority of NWS offices use hydrogen because they are away from sensitive locations,” the agency said. said on Twitter.
HELIUM IS A LIMITED RESOURCE IN SHORTAGE OF SUPPLY
Helium is a non-renewable resource that is harvested during the production of natural gas.
The gas, which is one of the coldest substances on Earth in its liquid form, is already scarce and extremely difficult to store. Any helium that escapes cannot be recovered – in fact, it escapes from Earth’s atmosphere and spills directly into 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 shortage of supply have created several helium shortages in recent years, including the current disruption that has forced NWS Tallahassee to conserve resources.
WEATHER BALLOONS ARE AN ESSENTIAL TOOL
Weather balloons are an essential 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 in 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 atmospheric pressure.
The radiosonde relays this information to ground stations, giving meteorologists a detailed look at the weather from the surface to the top of the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere where nearly all weather occurs.
Tracing data from twice-daily balloon launches around the world can reveal important atmospheric features, such as the location and strength of the jet stream.
All of this data is fed 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 next few days.