Lack of hydrogen and helium leads to fewer weather survey trips in hot air balloons

The National Weather Service has cut ballooning operations at some of its sites because of shortages of hydrogen and helium used to lift them, potentially affecting weather forecasts and studies. weather and climate.

The cuts, along with the closure of a Cape Cod launch pad last year that have yet to reopen, could particularly affect forecasts in the New York-New region, some scientists say. England.

The agency says it will use data from balloons launched at nearby sites and from its other sources, including ground-based sensors, satellites and commercial aircraft. While hot air balloons have certain advantages, including visibility at an altitude of about 20 miles, “This temporary adjustment will not affect weather forecasts and warnings,” the agency said. said in the cut announcement last week.

But Troy Kimmel, a meteorologist in Austin, Texas, and a lecturer at the University of Texas there, says any drop in observations is relevant. “It’s very important in our atmospheric modeling to be able 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 meteorological data. “We’re going to have great distances.”

Dr Yuter said the cuts showed the weather service was not placing a high enough priority on weather balloons, which have been a staple of the agency for nearly a century.

“If you make something important, you solve that problem,” she said.

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

“The Aerial Observation Program remains an important contributor to our analyses, assimilation of model data and to forecasters’ situational awareness,” she said.

Weather balloons, about 5 feet in diameter when launched, carry a small, usable package called a radio conduit that transmits data on temperature, pressure and relative humidity as the balloon ascends upper atmosphere. The balloon will eventually explode and the radiosonde is dropped by parachute to the ground, where it can be recovered and reused.

Balloons are used around the world and are usually launched at specific times twice daily, 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, effective immediately, flights from nine of its 101 launch sites in the United States and the Caribbean will be reduced “due to supply chain disruptions.” global response to helium and a temporary problem with a single hydrogen supplier contract.” The agency said it expected other sites to be affected.

The helium market has been hit this year due to problems at the main domestic supply, in Amarillo, Texas, and a fire in January at a large new plant in Russia.

The affected locations are all east, from Tallahassee, Fla., north to Buffalo and Albany in New York. Five use helium and four use hydrogen. The service says flights will be reduced to one day and eliminated entirely on days with good weather, to save gas for flights in hazardous weather.

On Monday, Ms. Buchanan said helium has been delivered to a site, in Greensboro, NC, and a full launch schedule has resumed. But some of the other affected locations have or will soon run out of gas, she said. The issue with the hydrogen supplier has been resolved, but it is unclear when gas deliveries will resume.

By measuring conditions through the air column, the radio co-ordinates provide important information for understanding and predicting the evolution of storm systems. Even when the weather is calm, collecting that data can be crucial, Kimmel said.

“Who can say that that kind of mild weather won’t affect what they forecast for other places?” he say.

Dr Yuter said that the balloon data helps scientists understand the structure of the atmosphere and “provides us with an understanding of what will happen as the climate changes”.

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

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

Without Upton and Chatham, a vast stretch of the South China Sea, from Wallops Island, Va., to Portland, Maine, would not be covered by hot air balloon launches.

Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, says that while the weather service is facing a “difficult situation,” he doesn’t think their claim that will have an impact on the forecast. Newspaper is reliable.

“The NWS considers that the loss of several radiosonde stations in high-population areas does not affect the forecast and has no supporting evidence,” he said.

The weather service has faced another disruption in its data collection capabilities in recent years. Around the world, commercial jets regularly and automatically provide weather data to weather agencies and similar agencies in other countries. During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, with air travel down by about 75%, those observations fell by about the same amount.

A study by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that data loss affects quality of one of its weather forecasting models.

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