Why a worldwide helium shortage isn’t just bad news for party balloons

Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 5:57 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A worldwide helium shortage has reached Vermont. The shortage is the result of a perfect storm: shutdowns of helium plants in Texas and Russia coupled with the war in Ukraine slashing supply and driving up the price.

Helium isn’t just used in party balloons. It’s also used to launch weather balloons for the National Weather Service.

The shortage has limited weather balloon launches at the Albany National Weather Service office. These are launched to gather upper atmosphere weather data.

“What ultimately could happen is if you lose this data on a consistent basis, you might be impacting your models and getting a less accurate forecast,” WCAX Chief Meteorologist Dan Dowling said.

Dowling says there are other ways to get upper air data, mainly from aircraft, but there’s no perfect substitute for the weather balloons. They are also relying on their existing data points to help get a forecast out to viewers.

“You basically still use the data that you have in the hopes that it’s consistent enough to make accurate forecasts, but you still rely on your own forecasting ability to hopefully compensate for some of that and still put out a good product for your viewers,” Dowling explained.

Over at Homeport in Burlington, you can buy all the celebratory decorations for a birthday, but soon their balloons will be feeling a little down; they are on their very last tank of helium and it’s about to hit empty.

However, store co-owner Mark Bouchette has a solution-- using a balloon with some compressed air mounted on a stick.

“We’re going to switch to the stick. All the other lighter-than-air gasses are extremely dangerous, so we are not going there. So, I think, yes, we are going to go to the sticks and keep the kids happy that way,” Bouchett said.

Helium is also used to cool magnets in MRI machines which are used to take scans of organs and structures inside the body. We checked with local hospitals and it seems they have enough helium on hand for now to perform those vital diagnostic tests.