Apr 6, 2022 - Energy & Environment

National Weather Service faces helium shortage for weather balloons

Illustration of helium gas tanks falling over like dominos.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Just as the spring tornado season kicks into high gear, the National Weather Service is facing shortages in key gases it uses to fill weather balloons.

Why it matters: Weather balloons are usually launched twice daily at about 100 locations nationwide and provide vital information for weather forecasting, from the temperature profile of the atmosphere to the winds aloft. They can help anticipate severe thunderstorms, for example.

  • But several balloon sites have had to limit launches because of supply chain shortages of helium, plus a contract dispute concerning a supplier of hydrogen gas.

Context: With extreme weather events on the rise both in number and severity, due in part to human-caused climate change, America's weather forecasting infrastructure is showing signs of strain.

  • Meteorologists have complained for years about NWS telecommunications glitches that have delayed the relay of life-saving warnings and hobbled the NWS website.
  • In addition, a vital communications link known as NWS Chat that ties together meteorologists, emergency managers and the media is constantly crashing when it's needed most — during severe weather events.

Driving the news: On March 29 the NWS sent a bulletin announcing the reduction in frequency of weather balloon launches due to a "global supply chain disruption of helium" and a "temporary issue with the contract" of a hydrogen supplier. Most NWS weather balloons use hydrogen rather than helium.

  • According to the notice, about 9% of the 101 upper air observation sites were affected by the gas shortage and contract problem, with more disruptions expected.
  • The statement downplayed the implications of the disruption. "This temporary adjustment will not impact weather forecasts and warnings," it stated. However, meteorologists disputed this.

Details: According to NWS spokeswoman Susan Buchanan, as of Tuesday, the hydrogen contract has been resolved, but deliveries of the gas may take up to six weeks to arrive.

  • In addition, the number of helium balloon sites affected has declined to three from the original five. They are Albany, Tallahassee and the New York City forecast office located in Upton, Long Island.
  • "This is an evolving situation that changes daily," Buchanan said.

What they're saying: Buchanan said the public statement, which has drawn scrutiny from forecasters, "could have been better worded."

  • "Upper air soundings are a critical observation tool for weather forecasts. Because of the vital importance of this data, we have been doing everything we can to resolve supply issues," she said via email.

What's next: The NWS has received significant increases in funding in the past few years to boost its supercomputing power, but other core capabilities may need upgrading in an era when climate change is putting more strains on the agency.

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