The lack of hydrogen and helium led to fewer trips on weather forecast balloons

The National Meteorological Service has reduced the release of weather balloons at some of its sites due to the scarcity of hydrogen and helium used to lift them, which could affect weather and climate forecasting and research.

According to some scientists, the cuts, along with the closure of a launch site at Cape Cod last year that has yet to be reopened, could particularly affect forecasts in the New York and New England area.

The agency said it would use data from balloons launched at nearby locations and from other sources, including ground sensors, satellites and commercial aircraft. While the balloons have certain advantages, including the ability to make observations up to a height of about 20 miles, “This temporary adjustment will not affect weather forecasts and warnings,” the agency said in announcing the cuts last week. .

But Troy Kimmel, a meteorologist in Austin, Texas, and a professor at the University of Texas there, said any reduction in observations was worrisome. “It is 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 weather data. “We will have big gaps.”

Dr. Yuter said the cuts showed that the weather service did not give high enough priority to weather balloons, which have been a staple of the agency’s observations for nearly a century.

Gas shortage is a solvable problem, he said: “If you consider something important, solve the problem.”

Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Meteorological Service, said: “We take this situation seriously and are looking for ways to resolve it.”

“The top air observation program remains a key contributor to our analysis, model data assimilation, and awareness of the situation of our forecasters,” he said.

Weather balloons, which are about 5 feet in diameter when launched, carry a small, expendable package of instruments called a radiosonde that transmits data on temperature, pressure, and relative humidity as the balloon rises into the upper atmosphere. The balloon finally explodes and the radiosonde parachutes down to the ground, where it can be recovered and reused.

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

The weather service announced on March 29 that, with immediate effect, flights from nine of its 101 launch sites in the United States and the Caribbean would be reduced “due to a disruption to the global helium supply chain. and a temporary problem with the contract of a hydrogen supplier. ” The agency said it hoped other places would be affected.

The helium market has been hit this year by problems at the main domestic source in Amarillo, Texas, and by a fire in January at a major new plant in Russia.

The affected sites are in the east, from Tallahassee, Florida in the north to Buffalo and Albany in New York. Five use helium and four use hydrogen. Flights would be reduced to one a day and days would be completely eliminated in good weather, in order to save gas for launches during dangerous times, the service said.

On Monday, Ms. Buchanan said helium had been delivered to a location in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a full launch program had resumed. But some of the other affected sites had or would soon run out of gas, he said. The problem with the hydrogen supplier had been resolved, but it was unclear when gas deliveries would resume.

By measuring conditions through the air column, radiosondes provide crucial information for understanding and predicting the evolution of storm systems. Even if the weather is calm, collecting this data could be important, said Mr. Kimmel.

“Who can say that this calm weather pattern won’t affect what they anticipate elsewhere?” He said.

Dr. Yuter said the balloon data helps scientists understand the structure of the atmosphere and “feed our understanding of what will happen as the climate changes.”

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

The weather service was forced to close its station in Chatham, Massachusetts, Cape Cod, in March 2021 due to erosion. The agency is working to select a location for a new station as soon as possible, Ms. Buchanan.

Without Upton and Chatham, a large stretch of 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 was facing a “difficult situation,” he did not believe his statement that there would be no impact on the forecast was credible.

“The NWS claims that the loss of several radiosonde stations in a heavily populated region has no impact on the forecast is accompanied by any evidence of support,” he said.

The weather service has faced another disruption in its data collection capacity in recent years. Worldwide, commercial aircraft routinely and automatically provide weather data to the weather service and similar agencies in other countries. During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, with the reduction in air travel by 75 percent, these observations were reduced by approximately the same amount.

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

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