A national chain's announcement that it is shuttering 45 stores nationwide perhaps got more attention than it might have thanks to a scientific reality. The chain is Party City, supplier of balloons and all manors of party favors, and the scientific reality is that the world is facing a helium shortage. Party City cited the shortage as part of the reason for the closings, adding that it has lined up a new supplier for its remaining stores beginning this summer, reports Bloomberg. The issue affects far more serious things than party balloons, however, given that helium is used in the medical field (for MRIs and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance devices), air bags, fiber optics, and even deep-sea diving (mixed with oxygen, it helps resurfacing divers avoid "the bends.").
The coverage provides a science primer: Helium is actually the second-most abundant element, notes NBC News, but it's extremely difficult to capture. Most of the world's supply comes as a byproduct from the collection of natural gas. A National Geographic story from 2018 offers an excellent overview, noting that the world has only 14 plants to refine helium, seven of which are in the US. Amarillo, Texas, is home to the Federal Helium Reserve, but the government is winding down operations there and will sell its last stores of helium from Amarillo in 2021. (A conflict in Qatar also put the shortage on the world's radar.)