Supply chain issues mean fewer weather balloon launches in the northeast

Weather balloons collect data as they rise through the atmosphere. Helium and hydrogen shortages prompted the National Weather Service to scale back launches.

HARTFORD, Conn. — Supply chain disruptions are now affecting how weather forecasters collect data.

The National Weather Service has reduced weather balloon launches due to shortages of the hydrogen and helium used to inflate and launch them.

A statement from the weather service says this is “due to a disruption in the global helium supply chain and a temporary issue with a hydrogen supplier’s contract”, and the changes are in effect until further notice. order.

There are 101 locations across the United States and the Caribbean that launch weather balloons, usually twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

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As the balloon rises through the atmosphere, often to a height of 20 miles or more, observations are taken including temperature, humidity, pressure and wind. This data is ingested into computer models that are used to forecast the weather. Meteorologists plot this data on atmospheric soundings, which can show how the air changes with altitude, which is essential for predicting winter and severe weather.

Nine sites are affected by the shortage. Southern New England and the New York area are at the center of the data vacuum.

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The Chatham launch site on Cape Cod was actually taken offline over a year ago because it was on an exposed coastal site that was vulnerable to erosion. The weather service has not yet replaced it.

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The loss of this data is compounded by blackouts on Long Island and Washington DC, where balloons will not be launched regularly.

In Albany, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, launches have been reduced to once per day.

Thus, the regular balloon launches closest to our west are in Ohio and Michigan.

The National Weather Service says the reduction won’t impact forecast quality, but many meteorologists argue that’s not true, as detailed in this Washington Post article.

Ryan Breton is a meteorologist at FOX61 News. He can be reached at rbreton@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and instagram.

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