A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
Mark Holm for The New York Times
A helium enrichment plant above a helium reserve in Amarillo, Tex.
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
December 19, 2012
AMARILLO, Tex. — One chain of party supply stores in Texas and Oklahoma was forced to make a cut worthy of Scrooge: no more balloons donated to charity events. A gated community on Lake Erie in Ohio that had handed out balloons to children at a Fourth of July parade for decades did not give out a single balloon this year. And a longtime tradition at University of Nebraska home football games — releasing up to 5,000 red balloons after the Huskers score their first touchdown — was downsized this season to a modest 2,000.
The problem each time was not the supply of balloons, but the supply of what goes in them: helium.
A global helium shortage has turned the second-most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen) into a sought-after scarcity, disrupting its use in everything from party balloons and holiday parade floats to M.R.I. machines and scientific research.
Balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade last month had helium, but a shortage has affected other parades this year.
In years past, there have been periodic shortages of helium — in 1958, the giant balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were filled with air instead of helium and hoisted onto trucks — but physicists, industry experts and federal officials said that this year’s shortage had been one of the worst, for its duration and scale.
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