NWS reduces weather balloon launches

Global supply chain issues and a temporary issue with a hydrogen supplier led the NWS to reduce its number of launches.

CHARLOTTE, NC – Weather balloons are an essential tool used by meteorologists to produce accurate forecasts. Due to supply chain issues and a shortage of hydrogen, the National Weather Service (NWS) announced that it was reducing the number of weather balloon launches.

The NWS currently launches weather balloons from 101 high-altitude sites across the United States and the Caribbean, including 92 in the United States.

Currently, hydrogen and helium are used to inflate balloons.

In February, WCNC Charlotte’s Brittany Van Voorhees spoke with Trisha Palmer, meteorologist in charge of coordinating NWS Greenville-Spartanburg warnings about the pros and cons of weather balloons.

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Hydrogen is cheaper and more reliable. However, one of the main reasons some sites still use helium is because hydrogen is flammable. Palmer explained that the NWS in Tallahassee, Fla., has its site high up on the campus of Florida State University. This limits its ability to use hydrogen.

Now, due to global supply chain issues and a temporary issue with a hydrogen supplier’s contract, the NWS is reducing the number of launches at high-altitude sites across the country.

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According to the NWS, around 9% of the total high-altitude sites are currently affected by gas shortages and temporary contract issues, including five helium sites and four hydrogen sites. This has caused them to reduce launches or suspend them during “calm weather days” to ensure gas availability in dangerous weather.

While they don’t anticipate any impact on weather forecasts or warnings, we know how important these launches are, especially during the spring weather season.

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In fact, additional launches are happening on Wednesday due to another outbreak of severe weather.

Our local forecast office in the Charlotte metro area is NWS Greenville-Spartanburg. The outer portions of the WCNC Charlotte viewing area are covered by NWS Blacksburg, NWS Raleighand NWS Colombia.

Although Greenville-Spartanburg is not an elevation site, two of the affected elevation sites are nearby: Blacksburg (covering Ashe and Watauga counties) as well as NWS Greensboro.

Although the WCNC weather team does not receive our forecast from the NWS, we use some of the same model data and work in conjunction with it during major weather events.

Complete list of impacted sites

Helium website:

Hydrogen sites:

Why are weather balloons important?

Weather balloons are used to launch radiosondes. These instruments measure temperature, dew point, relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction. Then the data is sent back in real time, entered into forecasting models and used by meteorologists across the country for better forecasting results.

According to the NWS, data is also collected from instruments aboard commercial aircraft, surface observing stations, satellites, radars and buoys.

Contact Brittany Van Voorhees at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and instagram.