Due to a current helium and hydrogen shortage in the United States, meteorologists will struggle to predict accurate weather patterns for the public.
The Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply has described that one reason for the helium shortage in particular is due to factory issues in Russia. A large helium plant located in Amur, Russia endured a fire and explosion in January that has stopped helium production for at least the next six months. Another factor contributing to this shortage is the Federal Helium Reserve, the largest helium storage facility in the world, ending their public sales this year and switching exclusively to private ownership, leading to an increase in the price of helium.
Hydrogen and helium are commonly used in devices that gather information on the weather conditions every day. The National Weather Service specifically uses these elements when launching balloons into the atmosphere that record data like air pressure, temperature, wind and humidity.
In a public statement from the National Weather Service, the issues they are having with hydrogen are due to contract complications with their supplier.
Weather balloon launches are observations done twice daily, once in the morning and once at night by organizations like the National Weather Service. The balloon launch device is a large balloon, starting at approximately six feet, filled with either hydrogen or helium. The balloon carries a radiosonde, parachute and warning message.
The radiosonde is responsible for transmitting the data recorded in the air to the station on land. The parachute is to aid the balloons’ return to ground, and the warning message is to advise individuals not to touch the balloon if they come across it while it’s inflated.
“Radiosondes are instruments attached to weather balloons that send back a wide range of upper atmospheric data to support weather forecasts, including temperature, dew point, relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed, wind direction,” The National Weather Service said in their public information statement. “Radiosondes are one of many technologies that collect earth observation data for use in weather modeling and forecasting. Data is also collected from instruments aboard commercial aircraft, surface observing stations, satellites, radars, and buoys.”
Recently, however, the National Weather Service announced that they will be canceling some of the balloon launches due to their lack of hydrogen and helium, The Washington Post reported.
“Across the country, nine sites were affected by the shortages — five helium sites and four hydrogen sites. Some, like the weather forecast offices in Albany, N.Y., or Pittsburgh, have cut back to only one launch per day. Others, including offices that serve New York City; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Roanoke, have suspended their routine flights altogether during calm weather,” The Washington Post said.
The National Weather Service initially reported that the termination of these launches will not affect weather predictions for the future. However, contradictory statements from meteorologists claim it will affect accurate weather forecasts. This caused a second statement to be released clarifying that the weather service could have worded the original announcement better, according to The Washington Post.
The National Weather Service did not state when the balloon launches will begin again in their public statement but did note that they are working to convert all sites to use only hydrogen instead of a combination of hydrogen and helium.