Shortages of hydrogen and helium led to fewer balloon flights for weather surveys

The National Weather Service has restricted launches of weather balloons at some of its sites due to shortages of hydrogen and helium used for lifting, potentially affecting forecasts and weather and climate research.

The cuts, coupled with the closure last year of a launch site on Cape Cod that has not yet reopened, could have a particular impact on forecasts in the New York-New England area, some scientists say.

The agency said it would use data from balloons launched at nearby locations and from other sources including ground-based sensors, satellites and airliners. While balloons have certain advantages, including the ability to conduct observations up to about 20 miles high, “this temporary adjustment will not affect weather forecasts and warnings,” the agency said when announcing the cuts last week.

But Troy Kimmel, a meteorologist in Austin, Texas, and a lecturer at the University of Texas there, said any reduction in observations is worrying. “It’s very important for our atmospheric modeling to have this information,” he said.

“We can’t go back and get that data,” said Sandra Yuter, a professor at North Carolina State University and an expert in remote sensing of meteorological data. “We will have big gaps.”

dr Yuter said the cuts showed the weather service is not giving a high priority to weather balloons, which have been a staple of the agency’s observations for nearly a century.

The gas shortage is a solvable problem, she said: “If you think something is important, then you solve the problem.”

Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, said: “We take this situation seriously and are pursuing all avenues to resolve it.”

“The upper air observing program continues to make an important contribution to our analysis, model data assimilation and situational awareness of our forecasters,” she said.

Weather balloons, which are about 5 feet in diameter at launch, carry a small, expendable instrument package, a radiosonde that transmits data on temperature, pressure and relative humidity as the balloon rises into the upper atmosphere. The balloon eventually bursts and the radiosonde is parachuted to the ground, where it can be salvaged and reused.

Balloons are used around the world and are usually launched twice a day at specific times, 12 hours apart. The data is fed into computer models that provide short- and long-term weather forecasts, and also becomes part of large long-term databases used in weather and climate research.

The Weather Service announced on March 29 that flights from nine of its 101 launch sites in the United States and the Caribbean would be reduced effective immediately “due to a global disruption in the supply chain of helium and a temporary issue with the contract for a hydrogen provider.” The agency said it expects more locations to be affected.

The helium market was hit this year by problems at its main domestic source in Amarillo, Texas, and a fire in January at a major new facility in Russia.

The affected locations are all in the east, from Tallahassee, Florida, north to Buffalo and Albany in New York. Five use helium and four use hydrogen. Flights would be reduced to one day per day and canceled altogether on good weather days to conserve fuel for take-offs in hazardous weather, the service said.

On Monday, Ms. Buchanan said helium had been shipped to a site in Greensboro, NC, and a full launch schedule had resumed. But some of the other affected sites were, or would soon be, completely out of gas, she said. The problem with the hydrogen supplier had been resolved, but it was unclear when supplies of the gas would resume.

By measuring conditions through the air column, radiosondes provide information critical to understanding and predicting the evolution of storm systems. Even if the weather is calm, gathering that data could be important, Mr Kimmel said.

“Who says this calm weather pattern isn’t going to affect what they’re predicting for other places?” he said.

dr Yuter said balloon data is helping scientists understand the structure of the atmosphere and “adds to our understanding of what will happen if the climate changes.”

One of the affected helium sites is in Upton, NY on Long Island. It is the closest launch site to New York City, which is about 50 miles west.

The weather service had to close its station in Chatham, Mass., on Cape Cod in March 2021 due to erosion. The agency is working to select a site for a new station as soon as possible, Ms Buchanan said.

Excluding Upton and Chatham, a large stretch of the east coast from Wallops Island, Virginia to Portland, Maine is not covered by balloon launches.

Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, said that while the weather service faces a “difficult situation,” he doesn’t think their statement that there will be no impact on forecasts is credible.

“The NWS claim that the loss of multiple radiosonde stations in a densely populated region did not affect the forecast was not accompanied by any supporting evidence,” he said.

The weather service has faced another disruption to its data collection in recent years. Commercial aircraft around the world routinely and automatically provide weather data to the weather service and similar agencies in other countries. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when air travel fell by about 75 percent, those observations fell by about the same amount.

A study by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the data loss affected the quality of one of their weather forecast models.

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