Life's Little Mysteries

How Much Helium Is Needed To Fill The Macy's T-Day Parade Balloons?

It takes a lot of helium to march Kermit, Snoopy, Spongebob and all their inflatable friends down the streets of New York City. This year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade features 15 giant balloons which, in total, require a whopping 300,000 cubic feet of helium to stay afloat.

That's roughly the same volume as 2.2 million gallon jugs of milk.

And what happens to all that helium when the parade ends? "We have pioneered a reclaiming process, but the technology isn't there yet to reclaim the helium," Orlando Veras, the spokesperson for Macy's events told Life's Little Mysteries. Instead, the balloons are deflated and the helium is released straight into the atmosphere. (Don't worry. 300,000 cubic feet of helium isn't nearly enough to give city dwellers chipmunk voices.)

Isn't that a waste of helium? Not really. Concerns over the extinction of helium were overinflated, Bob Peterson, an agent at the Amarillo Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Federal Helium Reserve, told Life's Little Mysteries.

"In the U.S., we produce and sell 4.3 billion cubic ft of helium each year," Peterson said. "The amount used in the Macy's parade accounts for less than 1 percent of that." The Reserve was established after World War II to ensure that the U.S. would always have a steady supply of helium, which serves as an excellent coolant for use in particle accelerators, computer chip manufacturing and defense and space exploration systems. By the early 1970s, the U.S. had stored 40 billion cubic feet of helium.

In the late 1990s, however, the private market for helium production captured as a byproduct of sequestering natural gas flourished so much that U.S. realized it could get what it needed from private sources, and so it began selling off its stores. The Reserve now holds some 16 billion cubic feet of helium, which Peterson says it is still selling off. As long as the natural gas projects around the world come online in the next decade as planned, and global helium consumption stays at its current level, Peterson said, we won't face a drought for a very long time.

Back to the giant balloons. The parade kicks off at 9 am (EST) on Thanksgiving day, with the fun starting at 77th Street and Central Park West and running south to Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. Tune in to NBC to see the one-of-a-kind floats, marching bands and musical performances from Kanye West, Jessica Simpson and more. Hey, it's worth watching even if you don't like balloons there's always the chance that Kanye will do something crazy.

Got a question? Email it to Life's Little Mysteries and we'll find an expert who can crack it.

Follow Bjorn Carey on Twitter @thebjorncarey

Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.