AUSTIN (KXAN) — Twice a day, every day of the year, hundreds of weather balloons are launched across the country by the National Weather Service. The recent helium shortage, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, has caused some of these weather balloon launches to be cancelled.

KXAN has spent the last month investigating the impact these cancellations could have on our forecasts and what is causing the shortage.

According to Matthew Brady, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in New Braunfels, of the 101 sites that launch weather balloons, 12 rely on helium to go up. Of those 12, five sites have had to reduce the number of launches they do from twice a day to once a day.

Those sites are mainly on the east coast:

  • Albany, NY
  • New York City, NY
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Greensboro, NC
  • Charleston, SC

“The National Weather Service sends out weather balloons to get a snapshot of the atmosphere across the whole country,” Brady said. He said that weather balloons are very important because they provide one of the few sources of information about weather conditions in the upper atmosphere. This data is essential for meteorologists trying to forecast the weather.

Greensboro, one of the sites impacted, has recently resumed its twice-daily launches. The other four sites are limiting their launches, but Brady said they will do a launch if significant weather is in the forecast.

What’s the deal with the helium shortage?

There are a few factors that have led to the global helium shortage, according to Toti Larson, a geologist with the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Production is down for helium. Consumption is up for helium.”

Toti Larson shows KXAN reporter Eric Henrikson rock samples collected from around the world. (KXAN photo/Julie Karam)

Larson said that helium is used not only balloons, but is also used to cool MRI machines in hospitals and in the production of semiconductors, another thing in short supply these days.

The Bureau of Economic Geology is tasked with finding gasses like helium around the world. To do this, Larson and his team have access to three warehouses full of rock samples that have been collected from around the world. “We’re trying to understand what resources are available, and where are they on the earth.”

One of the ways they test rock samples to determine what minerals they contain is by using a spectrometer that scans the rocks. They use helium in this machine.

Helium is primarily mined alongside oil and gas.

“Helium is produced from uranium and thorium decay in the rocks. But it’s collected just like natural gas is collected in the rocks,” Larson said.

“One of the hard parts about helium is that it’s, it’s very rare. So even when we say we have concentrations of helium that are high, it’s only a few percent of the total gas,” Larson said that when mining for helium, the bulk of what’s recovered is other types of gas.

The Bureau of Economic Geology uses thousands of rock samples to locate helium around the world. (KXAN photo/Julie Karam)

Where in the world is helium?

The United States is one of the primary sources of helium. We have several locations, like Montana, where high concentrations can be found. For decades, the US had a supply in excess.

“Helium, historically has been stored in America up in the panhandle of Texas, near Amarillo, that’s where we had the strategic helium reserve. And we’ve been depleting the strategic helium reserve, since the 80s,” Larson said. This tapping of the reserve led to prices dropping on helium but also contributes to the shortage.

The other major supplier of the world’s helium: Russia.

“Russia is a large provider of helium, they do produce quite a bit of helium. And so now with the sort of geopolitics that’s occurring with Russia, there’s going to be greater demand for US helium,” Larson said.

What makes helium so special?

Helium is a noble gas, and therefore, inert.

“By being inert, it doesn’t react with things like other gases would,” Larson said, so it can be used in a wide variety of things in a safe way.

Graphic by KXAN

Another noble gas, neon, is also used in similar ways. It can be found in the production of semiconductors and lightbulbs. Neon is mined from the air, and the Ukraine is responsible for over 50% of the global Neon supply.

“The Ukraine happens to be a very large producer of purified oxygen,” Larson said.

Helium is lighter than air. Another gas that’s lighter than air is hydrogen.

“The difference with hydrogen from helium is that hydrogen is not inert (like helium and neon), so it can be explosive,” Larson said.

Brady said this is the reason some offices still use helium in their launches. Some of these launches occur in the major cities or are done near buildings.

Fewer balloon launches won’t have a major impact on local forecasts, the NWS said. Nearby radars and other sensors will be able to fill the majority of the data gaps.

The NWS is planning to find ways to reduce their reliance on helium in the coming years as a result of the shortage.