Gas shortage forces weather balloon launches to be canceled

However, any reduction in weather data due to the suspension of weather balloons could be short-lived. In an update provided to The Washington Post on Monday, the National Weather Service said several of the sites had been able to resolve issues affecting gas deliveries, although the agency noted that it will take some time before gas supplies arrive.

The weather service broadcasts routine weather balloons twice daily from 92 locations across the United States. Devices attached to balloons, known as radiosondes, measure air temperature, humidity, pressure and wind in each layer of the atmosphere to aid forecasters and provide data to digital weather guidance or to computer models.

Weather balloons are particularly useful in extreme weather conditions or winter precipitation, as the data they collect can offer detailed information about temperature profiles with altitude that cannot be collected via radar, satellite or a ground observation network.

The weather service, in its statement on balloon launch cuts, blamed supply chain disruptions that make helium difficult to obtain and a “temporary problem with a hydrogen supplier’s contract.” .

Only 12 of the 101 launch sites the weather service operates in the United States and the Caribbean use helium. The rest rely on hydrogen, which the weather service described as “a cost-effective and more reliable gas option.”

There are reasons why there are a dozen helium sites left. Susan Buchanan, spokesperson for the National Weather Service, explained that “some of the high-altitude sites that still use helium are located in places that make hydrogen an inappropriate option,” such as “on a college campus.” or “near occupied buildings”. ”

In her email, she noted that these same sites are “reviewed for their readiness to convert,” but that wouldn’t be an instant change or fix.

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, New York or Pittsburgh, have reduced to just one launch per day. Others, including offices that serve New York City; Baltimore; Washington D.C.; and Roanoke, have completely suspended routine calm weather flights.

Forecasters always have the option of deploying a weather balloon in the event of forecasted severe weather, but meteorologists are responsible for assessing the need to conserve resources or obtain better forecasts.

“To ensure that there is sufficient gas available to launch balloons in support of forecasts during hazardous weather, affected sites have either reduced launches to once a day or suspended flights during stormy days. calm weather,” the NOAA statement read. “This temporary adjustment will not impact weather forecasts and warnings.”

Debate on the impact of weather balloon suspensions

Although the weather service is adamant that the quality of forecasts will not deteriorate, a number of meteorologists are unconvinced or disagree. Better observations translate into better forecasts; a basic tenet of all science is that more data gives a more accurate picture of what is happening, and having better “initial conditions,” or real-time observations, helps model the future.

Although studies have shown weather satellite data is, by far, the most crucial for computer model predictions, many meteorologists on Twitter disputed the weather service’s claim that the loss of balloon data would have no impact.

“If so, why throw them in the first place?” tweeted Ryan Hanrahanchief meteorologist at NBC Connecticut.

Roger Edwards, a senior meteorologist at the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., tweeted” Polls [weather balloons] are launched to benefit from real-world forecasts – not as mere do-it-yourself exercises.

Among the assertions in the Weather Service release, he was blunt: “That’s not true,” he wrote.

Edwards noted, “Officially published papers have documented the benefits of upper-air observational data (whether rawinsondes or dropsondes) for human and numerical prediction.” He describe the situation as “a large amount of missing data”.

In an email to The Post, Edwards wrote that the tweets reflect his views and do not represent those of his employer.

Several other academic and government meteorologists also disputed the weather service’s statement of no impact in a Twitter discussion of the material. One also pointed out that missing data would create a void for researchers studying climate change.

Tyler Jankoski, chief meteorologist at NBC5 in Burlington, Vermont, wrote in a Twitter post that due to shrinking balloons, “we will know less about temperature, wind speed and humidity in the sky”. Its forecast area sits in the middle of the data void.

“The reduction in balloon launches means that the closest twice-daily high-altitude observation site to our southwest (where most weather originates) is in Detroit or the Washington, DC area,” he wrote. “Both are several hundred miles apart, so the weather could change between Vermont and those sites and it could be missed. This would then have a negative impact on the forecast here.

He says this may be especially true in winter, when weather balloons are an integral part of predicting mountain-influenced winter rainfall.

“Upstream snow is critical to Vermont’s famed ski industry, as some locations in the northern Green Mountains average over 200 inches of snow per season,” he wrote. “A lot of that has to do with wind direction and the amount of humidity in the lowest 5,000 feet of the atmosphere. Weather balloons tell us these things and allow us to accurately predict the amount of powder that will fall on the tracks.

The practical implications of not launching a weather balloon were evident in the Washington, DC area Thursday night. In conditions conducive to severe thunderstorms, forecasters had launched a weather balloon in the morning, but the 8 p.m. weather balloon launch never took place.

Weather balloons are crucial in determining the amount of wind shear present; Wind shear, a change in wind speed and/or direction with height, is a key ingredient in tornado formation. Balloon data could have helped spot conditions for a tornado that touched down just to the east from the launch site less than 20 minutes later.

Meanwhile, additional balloon launches are taking place in the Deep South for a project known as PERILs – Propagation, Evolution and Rotation in Linear Storms – which aims to unlock the secrets of how tornadoes form in squall lines. . Keli Pirtle, a public affairs specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says helium shortages won’t halt the project.

“The various NOAA-funded scientists … have been preparing for this research project for some time and have enough helium sourced mostly from local suppliers to do the experiment,” she wrote in an email.

The balloons used in the project are also smaller than those launched by the weather service, requiring less helium.

The gas shortage should end soon

The weather service seems optimistic that the gas shortage won’t last long. Chris Strong, an NWS meteorologist in the office who does forecasts for the nation’s capital, wrote in an email that “there has been recent movement on this, and I expect this situation will not doesn’t last too long in our office”.

In a follow-up email to The Post on Monday, Buchanan of the weather service described the situation as “evolving,” writing that one of the five helium sites involved “received a shipment of helium at the end of the last week and resumed [twice daily] spear.

She also said the contract issue blocking hydrogen deliveries “has been resolved.”

The four offices concerned “have resumed placing orders for hydrogen and are awaiting the arrival of supply so that they can resume launches,” she wrote.

Jeff Halverson and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.


A previous version of this article had misspelled meteorologist Tyler Jankoski’s name as Typer. The article has been corrected.