Answer Man

What happens to the helium in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons?

A close-up shot of the Snoopy and Woodstock balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City.
A close-up shot of the Snoopy and Woodstock balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. Flickr

Q: Your recent answer about the Macy’s parade reminded me of several questions I’ve had for decades: How do they deflate those giant balloons? How long after the parade do they deflate them? It seems like a lot of helium to let go into the atmosphere at once. Do they recycle the helium or simply let it go into the atmosphere?

J.K.L., of Belleville

A: You’re standing near the end of the annual Macy’s extravaganza when parade officials start deflating all those monster gasbags. Suddenly, everyone near 7th and Broadway sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk when they talk after inhaling that sudden rush of helium. Wow, wouldn’t that be a vacation video to show friends back home!

Don’t get excited. It doesn’t happen. Yes, the up-to-five-story-tall behemoths are deflated immediately after the parade. I mean, you can’t have your friendly neighborhood web-slinger or SpongeBob SquarePants blocking city streets and staring into office buildings for days on end. If you don’t believe me, you can watch the process at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Je3BMXnuxNo.

“As soon as a parade is over, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get these ready for the next parade, because we’re on a clock here!” John Piper, vice president of Macy’s Parade Studio, once joked with the Business Insider.

So the helium is simply released to go up, up and away, because recapturing it is impossible. But the amount is so negligible compared to the overall volume of air that it doesn’t make a difference. After all, we breathe in helium all the time, because in addition to nitrogen and oxygen, our atmosphere also contains trace amounts of the gas — about .000524 percent to be exact. So the balloons are deflated, rolled up and taken back to the Macy’s studio, where they are stored in “surprisingly small hampers” for another year.

As you imply, however, a more critical question is whether we’re wasting a valuable resource on cartoon characters at a time when some have claimed we’re facing looming helium shortages. Even a century ago, the U.S. government recognized helium’s value when, in 1925, it established a reserve to keep a healthy supply available to stay in the forefront of the lighter-than-air airship race.

In fact, from 1937 to 1960, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was the world’s only producer of helium, according to a 2013 National Geographic article. (Although helium does exist in the air, there’s no way to isolate and harvest it, so it has to be produced by other means, including as a byproduct of mining natural gas.) By the early 1970s, the United States had squirreled so much away — some 40 billion cubic feet — that storage costs were becoming prohibitively expensive. So even though the stuff doesn’t burn, we began having a fire sale in 1996 at just $47 per thousand cubic feet. The goal was to completely deplete the reserve by 2015.

But guess what? International demand started to spike because helium is crucial for such modern high-tech gadgets as semiconductors, fiber optics, computer drives and cryogenics. (Did you know that the largest use — about 22 percent annually — is to cool MRI machines in medical facilities?) In 2013, the reserve was re-established.

In recent years, you may have seen headlines predicting that the subterranean supplies of helium may be depleted by 2060, which, of course, led to stories criticizing such relatively trivial events as the Macy’s parade for wasting a precious commodity. Government officials say such worries have been overblown.

“In the U.S., we produce and sell 4.3 billion cubic feet of helium each year,” Bob Peterson, who helps oversee the Federal Helium Reserve, told Life’s Little Mysteries at livescience.com. “The amount used in the Macy’s parade accounts for less than 1 percent of this.”

Far less, as a matter of fact. To inflate the two dozen or so balloons, parade organizers have to truck in an estimated 400,000 cubic feet, which is just one one-hundredth percent of that 4.3 billion cubic feet turned out annually. Put it another way, the U.S. treasury is thought to earn $430,000 a day from helium sales. Macy’s bill in 2013 came to an estimated $43,000. By contrast, your tiny party balloons account for 8 percent of helium used each year.

So if officials are being honest, the only thing paradegoers have to worry about is avoiding some of the famous disasters that the balloons have experienced during past processions:

What’s down, Doc?: He always outwitted Elmer Fudd, but Bugs Bunny couldn’t fool Mother Nature when a 1989 snowstorm ripped open his side.

Here I come: To save the day? Not so much. In 1957, Mighty Mouse crashed into a street sign and collapsed.

It’s not easy being green: Kermit the Frog found that out again the hard way when he smacked into a tree during a 1985 rainstorm and ripped.

I love you: But the kids weren’t exactly a happy family when handlers couldn’t control Barney during a 1997 windstorm, which ripped the iconic purple dinosaur apart.

Having a bad (To)day: In 2008, the “Today” show crew (Meredith Viera, Al Roker and, yes, Matt Lauer) got a rude awakening when a Keith Haring balloon took a wide turn and crashed into their NBC booth, knocking them off the air for a bit.

If you have an hour, you can watch an in-depth inflation video courtesy of WABC-TV at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yUBRMdTRRE. Otherwise, see Spider-Man blow up in 20 seconds (the process usually takes 90 minutes) in a time-lapse at http://youtube.com/watch?v=V9ZwER7L8-A.

Today’s trivia

Whose bright idea was it to include these massive characters in the Macy’s parade, anyway?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Dedicated in 1937, the 42-story, 535-foot-tall Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh is the tallest education building in the Western Hemisphere. In the world, only the Moscow State University Main Building (787 feet) and two towers at Mode Gakuen University in Japan (668 and 558 feet) are taller.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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