A hydrogen-filled weather balloon launches automatically from a Department of Energy atmospheric measurement facility in Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow. About three years ago, Sandia National Laboratories switched from launching helium-filled balloons to launching hydrogen-filled balloons to reduce costs and carbon emissions. (Photo by Ben Bishop)

Sandia switches to hydrogen weather balloons

May 24, 2023 7:00 am Published by

Hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, Sandia National Laboratories researchers ensure the collection of important weather and climate data. By switching the gas used in their weather balloons, they have reduced their metaphorical footprint on the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

More than three years ago, the Sandia-operated atmospheric measurement facility in Alaska switched from launching helium-filled weather balloons to launching weather balloons filled with hydrogen produced on-site. Since then, they have launched nearly 5,000 hydrogen balloons with minimal issues.

This switch greatly reduces the transportation cost and emissions of shipping helium to Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, the northernmost city in the U.S. and site of the North Slope of Alaska atmospheric measurement facility.

The observatory, operated by Sandia for the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility, has collected weather and climate data, including specialized data on Arctic clouds, for more than 25 years. ARM’s data are freely available to researchers at universities and national laboratories, and is vital for refining climate models, especially those of the rapidly warming Arctic.

The switch from non-renewable helium to hydrogen was made possible by a partnership between the National Weather Service and the DOE. The National Weather Service provided the electrolysis equipment, which uses electricity to turn water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas, and provided regular maintenance of the equipment. In exchange, the ARM facility operated by Sandia launches two weather balloons a day for the weather service.

“Between Utqiaġvik and Oliktok Point, a long-term ARM mobile deployment that ended operations in 2021, we were the largest users of helium in the state of Alaska,” said Fred Helsel, the systems engineer who led the effort to ensure the switch was safe and smooth. “The National Weather Service has been great to work with.”

Read the complete news release.