In the mid-2000s, when I spent summer days tromping around coastal forests and grasslands as part of a research project on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard, I routinely encountered dozens of Mylar and latex balloons with their colorful bodies and trailing ribbons hung up in the trees.
My first impression was that this was some weird convergence that caused all these balloons to come down in one place. Of course, it wasn’t. Instead, it’s part of something far more troubling—and something that perhaps provides a little more insight into the way we use the planet’s limited resources than we’d like to admit.
Those balloons really ended up on the Martha’s Vineyard coast because across the United States, prevailing westerly winds carry inadvertently lost and intentionally released helium-filled balloons to the east. Many of these fall back to Earth over the ocean, where their half-filled volumes act like sails to catch the summer’s onshore winds.
How this continental conveyer belt of litter works dawned on me one day as I ate my lunch at the shore and watched a partly filled balloon emerge from the surf, roll up and over the dunes, and fly into the nearest stand of coastal scrub.
Balloons are a small part of the estimated 9 million tons of plastic that end up in the ocean each year. This junk takes a toll on marine animals. In just the last few weeks, necropsies of whales from Italy and the Philippines found tens of thousands of pounds of plastic in their stomachs.
Floating balloons—and similar plastic bags—might be particularly hard on sea turtles. That’s because green turtles potentially mistake free-floating floating balloons or bags for algae, and leatherback turtles mistake them for jellyfish that are their primary food. The ribbons attached to balloons also pose a threat, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which asks people not to release balloons.
Wildlife advocates and litter opponents are now starting to target large-scale releases of balloons like the one that will take place at this Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 and at some NCAA football games. While most party balloons are not intended for release, a large number (as many an unhappy child remembers) will float away.
Stopping intentional releases can be an uphill battle. Danielle Vosburgh, a Florida woman who founded BalloonsBlow.org, purchased a month’s time on an Indianapolis billboard this spring for her “Balloons Pollute and Kill” message in the lead-up to this year’s race, only to have it taken down a few days later. The billboard’s owner, Outfront Media, refused to comment to the Indianapolis Star.
Vosburgh and other wildlife advocates have had their success, though. Last year, Clemson University ended its pre-game balloon releases.
Lighter-than-air balloons floated again into my consciousness for another reason last week when a New York Times article reported a helium shortage.
Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, but it is dilute and scarce on Earth because it is produced slowly by the decay of uranium, thorium and other heavy elements, after which it often gets trapped with natural gas. Because it does not react with other elements, helium cannot be produced from other compounds (the way hydrogen can be produced by splitting water). Nor can it practically be re-concentrated from its five-parts-per-million concentration (roughly 80 times more dilute than carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere.
Helium’s inertness properties and its very low boiling point make it useful for pressurizing fuel tanks in liquid-fueled rockets and other cryogenic, or super-cooling, applications. These cryogenics, including in hospital Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, are its number-one use. Helium-filled balloons account for about 8 percent of annual consumption.
Because of its use in the rockets that launch satellites and nuclear weapons, the US government stockpiled helium in a strategic reserve in the 1960s. But in 1996 Congress passed a law that required the Bureau of Land Management (which oversees the reserve) to sell off helium to reduce the federal deficit. This keeps the price low and disincentivizes investments in the extraction of helium from the huge amount of natural gas we currently burn. When that gas supply ends—either because it runs out or because the warming caused by burning it becomes too much to tolerate—so will end our source of helium. Prudent planning calls for stockpiling helium from natural gas now.
But here we are, literally burning off a resource that we have no way of making more of. And spending a small, but not trivial, amount of that resource filling balloons, many of which end up as wildlife-threatening trash.
Not a great way to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world we desperately need. Natural gas generates one trillion dollars each year. Air-filled balloons are perfectly colorful and fun. Collectively, you’d think we could do better.