The National Weather Service has reduced weather balloon launches at some of its locations due to a shortage of hydrogen and helium used to lift them, which could affect forecasts and weather and climate research.
Some scientists said the cuts, along with the closing of the Cape Cod launch site last year that has yet to open, could particularly affect forecasts in the New York and New England area.
The agency said it will use data from balloons launched from nearby locations and from other sources, including ground sensors, satellites and commercial aircraft. While balloons have certain advantages, including the ability to make observations up to an altitude of about 20 miles, the agency said in announcing the reductions last week: “This temporary adjustment will not affect weather forecasts and warnings.”
But Troy Kimmel, a meteorologist in Austin, Texas, and lecturer at the University of Texas there, said any drop in observations was worrisome. “It’s very important in our atmospheric modeling that you have this information,” he said.
“We can’t go back and get that data,” said Sandra Yotter, a professor at North Carolina State University and an expert on remote sensing of meteorological data. “We’re going to have big gaps.”
Dr. Yotter said the cuts showed the weather service was not giving high enough priority to weather balloons, which have been a staple of the agency’s observations for nearly a century.
Gas shortages are a solvable problem, she said: “If you think about something important, you solve the problem.”
“We take this situation seriously and are seeking in all ways to resolve it,” said Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service.
“The upper air monitoring program remains a key contributor to our analyzes, ingestion of model data, and forecasters’ awareness of conditions,” she said.
Weather balloons, about 5 feet in diameter when released, carry a small consumable bundle of instruments called a radiosonde that transmits data about temperature, pressure and relative humidity as the balloon rises into the upper atmosphere. The balloon eventually explodes and the parachute radio probe descends to the ground, where it can be recovered and reused.
Balloons are used all over the world and are usually released at set times twice daily, 12 hours apart. The data is entered into computer models that provide both 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, immediately, flights from nine out of 101 launch sites in the United States and the Caribbean would be reduced “due to disruptions in the global helium supply chain and a temporary issue with one decade of the hydrogen supplier.” The agency said it expects additional sites to be affected.
The helium market has been affected this year by problems at the main domestic source, in Amarillo, Texas, and a fire in January at a major new plant in Russia.
All affected sites are in the east, from Tallahassee, Florida, north to Buffalo and Albany in New York. Five use helium and four use hydrogen. The service indicated that the number of flights would be reduced to one flight per day and completely canceled on good weather days, in order to conserve gas for launches during dangerous weather.
Ms Buchanan said Monday that helium has been delivered to one site in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the full launch schedule has resumed. She added that gas in some of the other affected sites has run out or will soon be exhausted. The issue with the hydrogen supplier was resolved, but it was not clear when gas deliveries would resume.
By measuring conditions through the air column, radiosondes provide information necessary to understand and predict the evolution of storm systems. Even if the weather is calm, Kimmel said, gathering that data can be important.
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“Who is to say that this calm weather pattern won’t affect what they expect for other places?” He said.
Dr. Yotter said the balloon data is helping scientists understand the structure of the atmosphere and “fueling our understanding of what will happen with climate change.”
One of the affected helium sites is located in Upton, New York, on Long Island. It’s 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, on Cape Cod, in March 2021 due to erosion. Ms. Buchanan said the agency is working to select a site for a new plant as soon as possible.
Without Upton and Chatham, balloon launches don’t cover much of the East Coast, from Wallops Island, Virginia, to Portland, Maine.
Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, said that while the weather service was facing a “difficult situation,” he didn’t think their statement that there would be no impact on the forecast was credible.
“The NWS’ claim that the loss of several radiosonde stations in a densely populated area had no effect on forecasts was not accompanied by supporting evidence,” he said.
The weather service has faced another disruption in its ability to collect data in recent years. Worldwide, commercial aircraft routinely and automatically provide weather data to the weather service and similar agencies in other countries. During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, with air travel down about 75 percent, those observations declined by roughly the same amount.
A study by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that data loss affected the quality of a weather forecast model.