Gas shortage forces cancellation of weather balloon launches

WEATHER NEWS: Gas shortage forces cancellation of weather balloon launches

Any cutbacks in weather data from the suspension of weather balloons may be short-lived, however. In an update provided to The Washington Post on Monday, the National Weather Service said several of the sites had been able to sort out issues affecting gas deliveries, though the agency noted it will take some time before the gas supplies arrive.

The Weather Service issues routine weather balloons twice a day from 92 locations in the United States. Devices attached to the balloons, known as radiosondes, measure air temperature, humidity, pressure and wind in each layer of the atmosphere to aid forecasters and provide input to numerical weather guidance, or computer models.

Weather balloons are especially useful in severe weather or wintry precipitation environments because the data they collect can offer detailed insight about temperature profiles with altitude that can’t be collected via radar, satellite or a ground-based observation network.

The Weather Service, in its release about the balloon launch cutbacks, blamed supply chain disruptions that are making helium difficult to procure and a “temporary issue with the contract of one hydrogen supplier.”

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

There are reasons a dozen helium sites remain, however. Susan Buchanan, a spokesperson for the National Weather Service, explained that “some of the upper-air sites that still use helium are located in places that make hydrogen an unsuitable option,” like “on a college campus” or “near occupied buildings.”

In her email, she noted that those same sites are being “evaluated for suitability for conversion,” but it wouldn’t be an instant switch 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, N.Y., or Pittsburgh, have cut back to only one launch per day. Others, including offices that serve New York City; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Roanoke, have suspended their routine flights altogether during calm weather.

Forecasters still have the option to deploy a weather balloon sounding if severe weather is expected, but meteorologists are tasked with weighing the need to conserve resources or procure better forecasts.

“To ensure there is enough gas on-hand to launch balloons in support of forecasts during hazardous weather, the affected sites have either reduced launches to once per day or suspended flights during calm weather days,” states the NOAA release. “This temporary adjustment will not impact weather forecasts and warnings.”

Debate over impact of weather balloon suspensions

Though the Weather Service is adamant that forecast quality will not be degraded, a number of meteorologists either aren’t convinced or disagree. Better observations translate to better forecasts; a basic tenet of any science is that more data gives a more accurate picture of what’s going on, and having better “initial conditions,” or real-time observations, aids modeling the future.

Although studies have shown data from weather satellites is, by far, most crucial for computer model forecasts, numerous meteorologists on Twitter challenged the Weather Service’s assertion of no impact from the loss of balloon data.

“If that’s the case why launch them in the first place?” tweeted Ryan Hanrahan, chief meteorologist at NBC Connecticut.

Roger Edwards, a veteran meteorologist at the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., tweeted, “Soundings [weather balloons] are launched to benefit real-world forecasting — not as mere make-work exercises.”

Of the claims in Weather Service’s release, he was blunt: “It’s wrong,” he wrote.

Edwards noted: “Formally published papers have documented the benefit of observational upper-air data (be it rawinsondes or dropsondes) to human & numerical prediction.” He described the situation as “a big swath of missing data.”

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

Several other meteorologists from academia and government also disputed the Weather Service’s no-impact claim in a Twitter discussion of the matter. One also pointed out the missing data would create a gap for researchers studying climate change.

Tyler Jankoski, chief meteorologist at NBC5 in Burlington, Vt., wrote in a Twitter message that because of the balloon cutback, “we will know less about the temperature, wind speed and humidity in the sky.” His forecast area is in the middle of the data void.

“The reduction in balloon launches means the nearest twice-daily upper-air observation site to our southwest (where most weather comes from) is in Detroit or the Washington, D.C. area,” he wrote. “Both are several hundred miles away, so the weather could change in between Vermont and those sites and it may be missed. That would then negatively impact forecasts here.”

He says that can be especially true in the wintertime, when weather balloons are integral to forecasting wintry precipitation influenced by mountains.

“Upslope snow is critical for Vermont’s famous ski industry, as some spots in the northern Green Mountains average over 200 inches of snow per season,” he wrote. “So much of that is tied to wind direction and the amount of moisture in the lowest 5,000 feet of the atmosphere. Weather balloons tell us those things and allow us to accurately forecast how much powder will fall on the slopes.”

The practical implications of not launching a weather balloon was evident in the Washington, D.C., region Thursday evening. Amid conditions favorable for severe thunderstorms, forecasters had launched a morning weather balloon, but the 8 p.m. weather balloon launch never happened.

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

Meanwhile, supplemental 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 to how tornadoes form in squall lines. Keli Pirtle, a public affairs specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says helium shortages won’t interrupt the project.

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

The balloons used in the project are also smaller than those the Weather Service launches, requiring less helium.

Gas shortage should end soon

The Weather Service appears optimistic the gas shortage won’t last long. Chris Strong, a NWS meteorologist at the office that forecasts for the nation’s capital, wrote in an email that “there has been recent movement on this, and I expect this situation isn’t going to last too much longer at our office.”

In a follow-up email to The Post on Monday, the Weather Service’s Buchanan described the situation as “evolving,” writing that one of the five affected helium sites “received a shipment of helium late last week and resumed [twice daily] launches.”

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

The four affected offices “have resumed placing orders for hydrogen and are waiting for the supply to arrive so they can resume launches,” she wrote.

Jeff Halverson and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.


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

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