Photograph by Willard Culver, National Geographic

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A former Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon goes out to pasture.

Photograph by Willard Culver, National Geographic

The Hot Air That Lifts Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade May Be Going Down

As helium supplies sag, should the giant Snoopy balloon still soar?

Puppeteer Tony Sarg had a buoyant idea in 1925: outlandishly large balloons that could be walked down New York City streets. The balloons filled a commission from Macy's department store, whose owner was hoping to cheer homesick workers over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Sarg conceived of the balloons as upside-down marionettes, with sticks that would loft them above the street. Children found Sarg's first animals a little scary, though, so the idea was revised in 1928. The next batch of balloons had no sticks; instead, they were made completely of rubber and filled with helium.

"This mammoth figure of [Fabulous Ferdinand] was designed by Tony Sarg for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City," reads the caption accompanying this Kodachrome, published in the April 1940 National Geographic. "On Broadway his horns reach a fourth-floor level. He holds 4,500 cubic feet of helium and is made of the same rubberized fabric used in constructing the Goodyear-built National Geographic Society-U.S. Army Air Corps stratosphere balloon."

Fabulous Ferdinand stuck around in a field at parade's end. The giant balloons from subsequent years were, for the most part, deflated and put away. Outside of a two-year parade hiatus during WWII to conserve rubber and helium, no one balked as the lighter-than-air gas that filled the parade balloons—used for just a few hours—escaped into the atmosphere and beyond. But those were simpler times for helium.

Helium's Big Picture

There's plenty of helium outside of our planet. For instance, it's a big part of gas giant Jupiter's makeup. In fact, after hydrogen, it's the most abundant element in the universe. But here on Earth it's tougher to find—and keep.

Released deep underground during radioactive decay of the elements that formed the Earth, helium has always been in finite supply. It's getting scarcer. By some estimates the Earth's subterranean supply—found alongside natural gas deposits (though not the kind being fracked from shales)—will be gone in 40 to 60 years.

Helium is also in Earth's atmosphere, but no effective way exists to separate it from other gases in the air.

The biggest problem, however, is that there's no substitute for helium. It's the most stable element. It won't react with other elements. It won't burn. It's an essential part of semiconductors and fiber optics, welders and rocket launchers, cryogenics and computer drives. One of its most critical uses—accounting for 22 percent annually—is to cool MRI machines.

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It's also important to alternative energy. Geoscientist Murray Hitzman, at a July conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, called it the coolant of choice for nuclear power, since it can't become radioactive.

And while helium can, in theory, be used more than once, it's lighter than air, which makes it devilishly hard to recapture. Whenever it escapes or leaks—or is released from giant balloons after a Macy's parade—it justs keep going up, up, and away.

Reserving Judgments

Helium's market has had its ups and downs.

Early on, the U.S. government understood helium's value. In 1925 it formed a helium reserve to keep a healthy supply at hand. The supply—key to holding the international upper hand in the then raging lighter-than-aircraft race—was so closely guarded that the U.S. was loath to sell any to Germany. As a result, in 1937 that country's ill-fated Hindenburg airship was filled with the similarly light—and flammable—hydrogen.

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From 1937 to 1960, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was the world's sole producer of helium. As the government-held reserve grew, so did the costs of maintaining it. The growth of private-sector technology, including MRIs and fiber optics, broadened helium's influence in the 1980s, but sales weren't enough to offset the reserve's growing debt.

By the next decade, underperforming sales started making reserving helium seem less worth it. In 1996 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management took over control of the reserve and the government mandated that it start selling off all the helium stores. The measure was to offset debt from building the reserve and from the everyday costs of running it. The reserve was to be completely empty by 2015. To sell helium quickly, they sold it cheap: $47 per thousand cubic feet.

As the stores of helium began to be depleted, international interest—especially in Asia—began to rise. Suddenly demand outpaced supply and the reserve was ahead of schedule for emptying. New legislation this fall, in the face of looming lack of supply and potentially skyrocketing prices, reestablished the reserve.

A Tall Order

So what's the modern Macy's parade's part in the big helium picture?

This week, the department store's annual order—an estimated 400,000 cubic feet of helium—will be trucked from a plant in Otis, Kansas, to Middlesex, New Jersey, where it will be converted to a gas and driven to New York City.

There it will fill 15 gigantic balloons—inflated Wednesday night, topped off Thursday morning—and propel Snoopy, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Spider-Man down Sixth Avenue in the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Given the gas's dwindling supply, some see the holiday display as a case of tradition trumping common sense. But Macy's uses a very small percentage of the 6.4 billion cubic feet of helium used annually around the world. The U.S. Treasury earns an average of $430,000 a day from crude helium sales and related operations. Macy's purchase is equal to about 10 percent of a day's sales.

All balloons don't get off the hook so easily though. Party balloons—which use about a cubic feet of helium apiece—suck up around eight percent of the world's annual supply.