General Question

nebule's avatar

Where do helium filled balloons go?

Asked by nebule (16159 points ) May 15th, 2010

you know…when people let them go into the open air… I worry in bed at night about these orphan balloons…. (which to be honest is the only thing that has convinced me to show my face here…nevertheless)

do they end up orbiting space in a beautiful coloured rainbow type constellation?

or does the gas compress, deflate the balloon which results in balloon shrivel and many…copious even (when you begin to think about the amount of helium filled balloons that are being released into the atmosphere every day…) amounts of shrivelled balloons plummet to the earth and fall out of the sky in front of unsuspecting balloon shrivel victims?

or…something else?..perhaps? ...hopefully?

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25 Answers

marinelife's avatar

“First of all, only one hundred percent biodegradable latex balloons are used in mass releases. Research showed that these balloons degrade about as quickly as an oak leaf under similar conditions. But opponents argue that a balloon floating in the ocean would take a lot longer to degrade than it would on land. While it’s hard to know whether balloons that have turned up in the stomachs of dead marine animals caused their death, the presence of a ribbon would be a very useful piece of information.

The other argument is that helium balloons are claimed to reach a height of anywhere up to ten kilometres before shattering into tiny little pieces. These pieces, it is said, would be too small to pose a threat to animals. Now the shattering effect sounds reasonable for two reasons. One is that atmospheric pressure is dramatically reduced at high altitudes, so a helium balloon expands as it rises and eventually explodes. If you inflate a balloon beyond its limits at room temperature, it will break into small pieces up to about ten centimetres long. But the elasticity of rubber decreases at very low temperatures so it is possible that helium balloons shatter into much smaller pieces as is often claimed. Unfortunately, no one has followed a balloon up to see what really happens up there as far as I know. And on top of that, you have to keep adding air without tying a knot to over-inflate a balloon down here at sea level. It’s hard to say whether the knot stays intact when a helium balloon explodes way up there.”

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Mariah's avatar

My knowledge about this is only anecdotal, but here it is:

In one English class at my school, one assignment is to write a letter to somebody who has died. They then put the letters in helium balloons and release them. Anyone who’s feeling gutsy is allowed to put their name and address on their letter and in the history of this assignment, two kids have received letters back from people who found their balloons. I was very surprised by how far they traveled. I live in upstate New York; one kid’s reply came from northern Maine and the other came from the Carolinas! The balloons were said to have been in perfect condition when they were found.

jaytkay's avatar

“First of all, only one hundred percent biodegradable latex balloons are used in mass releases.”

That’s a weird statement. Is there a worldwide regulating authority for balloon releases?

“If you inflate a balloon beyond its limits at room temperature, it will break into small pieces up to about ten centimetres long.”

I haven’t popped a balloon in a long time, but I think they usually remain in one piece.

“Now the shattering effect sounds reasonable…Unfortunately, no one has followed a balloon up to see what really happens up there as far as I know…do a quick internet search on the subject and you’ll find heaps of info from both sides of the argument.”

The “surfing scientist” needs a little brush-up on the science part.

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dpworkin's avatar

They pop because the pressure eventually becomes sufficiently unequal on either side of the membrane.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Please remember: This question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic.

arpinum's avatar

The aluminium balloons certainly don’t biodegade very well. I recently found one while hiking. Looked pretty old and tarnished the look of the trail. Please don’t release these.

DrBill's avatar

The balloon rises several miles, the distance depends on the volume of gas, elasticity of the balloon, and the weight.

As it rises the gases inside expand to the point of rupturing the membrane, then the remains fall back to earth.

Most balloons can stay afloat for several days, and depending on the winds, they can travel upwards of several hundred miles. If you get it in a trade wind it could be several thousand miles, but eventually they all come back down somewhere.

filmfann's avatar

You are not allowed to tie aluminum balloons together, because they could cause problems with power lines if released.

Les's avatar

Hi, @lynneblundell ! I have a bit of experience with giant helium filled balloons, and I can be of some assistance to allay your late night fears. So when I was a grad student in Wyoming (a few months ago), the research I was a part of involved balloon-bourne measurements of ozone and stratospheric aerosol. This is a typical balloon we’d launch in Laramie: Laramie Balloon

Pretty big. So these are basically non biodegradable plastic balloons, they rise to about 100,000 feet (or about 33 km), and are designed to burst when they reach their maximum altitude. You see that long “tail” on the balloon that isn’t inflated? Well, as the balloon rises, the pressure around it decreases, and the helium expands to fill the entire balloon. Once it gets too big, it pops. Cool. These balloons we launched in Laramie fall to the ground, and we have GPS unit attached to them, so we are able to find them, gather them up, and remove them from whoever’s ranch they happened to land on. This is what they look like on the ground. Because they are so big and so invasive, we really tried to remove them from the land, because ranchers don’t really want these things on their property. I think my advisor at UW had a 100% recovery rate of these. Pretty nice.

Now, we also launched similar sized balloons (and some slightly smaller) at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. These balloons behaved the same way, in that they were designed to reach a certain altitude, burst, and fall. These balloons in Antarctica are not recovered. It is unfortunate to not be able to remove these things from the environment, but the cost and effort required to go out there and get them back outweigh the “relatively” small amount of plastic being released. This is the same for the rubber balloons released by the weather service to make the twice daily required atmospheric soundings all across the country: the balloons burst and fall to the ground, but are not recovered.

So, long story short: the balloons don’t float around for all eternity. They will eventually burst when they get high enough. And most of them are lost to the environment. Which is sad, but in the case of research balloons (something near to my heart), the information gathered from them is so valuable, that at this moment in time, balloons are the most cost effective and minimally invasive ways to get this information.

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perspicacious's avatar

To the angels. Didn’t you ever get a thank you note from the angels for the beautiful balloons you let go of and watched disappear into the sky? I imagine that they actually eventually explode.

nebule's avatar

Wow, thank you everyone!! I didn’t know it was such a debated and researched issue…how fascinating!! I’d just love to be able to see this popping phenomena for myself..it appears perhaps something that nobody on earth will have ever seen happen…

SeventhSense's avatar

Ok as far as the “small” amount of byproduct litter being added to the environment consider that there are millions of balloons released around the globe for one reason/celebration or another. And no doubt “biodegradable” balloons is a catchword for the balloon industry saying “don’t take away our industry because we don’t give two shits about the environment because we live in gated communities with Golf Courses”.

These millions of balloons will all plummet to the earth eventually and just as likely if not more so will end up in the world’s oceans. The oceans drive this debris via currents into immense areas of garbage. The “Great Garbage Patch of the Pacific” only one among many is by conservative estimates to be thought to be the size of Texas and others estimate it at the size of the continental United States. And consider there are billions of suspended particles at various depths throughout the system not apparent on the surface. Of course this is in addition to the millions of metric tons of plastics that end up in our waterways either through direct dumping or inadvertent spill. Sea life eat this plastic often with dire results, Sea turtles look at plastic balloons and bags as jellyfish and can choke on them. In addition there is no real idea how this will affect humans being introduced into the food chain. But at the least tons of plastic debris swirling in our oceans that doesn’t degrade and then ends up on our beaches and in our fish can’t be a good thing. So the next time you are tempted to release that bunch of balloons at a wedding, try throwing some bird seed instead.
“We need to accept responsibility at a local level”.
Lecture by Charles Moore
We only have one earth. Love your Mother.

mattbrowne's avatar

Nurdles, which are pre-production plastic pellets, pollute the environment and provide problems that are a million times worse even if the helium balloons are not as bio-degradable as claimed.

Helium molecules are very small and it’s difficult to contain them over a longer period of time. Therefore the balloons lose helium relatively quickly.

SeventhSense's avatar

Another example of dumb shortsighted human behavior…sigh

Les's avatar

@SeventhSense : I’m doing this in ye olde tini font because it is a bit off topic. But I did want to address your concerns about the pollution effect of all these plastic and rubber balloons. Science is imperfect, and as such, there are often sacrifices that need to be made in order to get the data we desire. I can only speak for myself as a scientist, but I’m sure there are many, many others who feel the same as I do when I say that I wish there were other ways to get the data we need. I have the same concerns about releasing all this plastic/rubber into the environment, but the truth is is that there currently is no other cost effective way to get the data that these balloon bourne instruments receive. The data that we (meteorologists/atmospheric scientists) get from these instruments give us the tools we need to make things like weather models, forecasts, climate reports and models, volcanic ash dispersal algorithms, the list goes on and on. Some of the things I studied were the size and depth of the ozone hole over Antarctica. We did that to the Earth, too. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but not making these measurements is detrimental, too. I’m not sure if I’m being clear… I hate the idea of plastic waste… but I also hate the idea of neglecting to measure and keep tabs on these things that we already influenced. There are things in the works to reduce the use of balloons, but we need more minds coming up with a plan.

SeventhSense's avatar

@Les
Yes obviously scientific study is important and worth the collateral damage in this case. But we also need to remember that science created much of this mess in the first place. In the 1950’s Dupont and others sold us a brave new future of plastic. Science also brought us such wonders as this gem ‹(•¿•)›. We just need to remember that sometimes the benefits do not outweigh the costs.
“Medical Science knows! Non Hazardous! Guaranteed!”

N2NXZ's avatar

Now those of you worried about the litter of a balloon.
If you find one,throw it in the garbage,if you do not find any,then it is not a problem.
:)

iejlejr12's avatar

I believe, theorically, it might be that a helium balloon could reach an altitude where equilibrium is reached (outside/inside pressure) and, if the balloon did not burst could sustain that altitude and might very temoprarily become a piece of inner-space junk. That would probably be at an altitude where the near total vacuum of our atmosphere begins. Whether this has actually ever occured is likely pure speculation. Gravity, however, would prevail, so a burst balloon would fall to earth. In other words, it would obvioualy not be a piece of debis orbiting the earth..

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