Death of a Thousand High-Pitched Voices

A few weekends ago, I caught an elevator just as a woman was getting on with her two kids. The younger one had a balloon, tied with ribbon to the frame of her stroller. She looked to be around three. She had the ribbon in her hand and was tugging on it, making the balloon hop around above her. As the elevator doors closed, the girl announced, less to me than to the universe in general, "I have a balloon." Although really, it was more like, "I have a bloon!" where bloon is a few notes higher than the rest of the line. Basically, it was the cutest thing that ever happened. Which is precisely why I started praying to Jesus, Vader, and Aunt Jemima to get me off that elevator as quickly as possible. Because here's the thing. Balloons were sent by Lucifer to make children sad.

Balloons are the among the most magical of toys, a simple item that does nothing but float colorfully. To a child, they are like bubbles of perfection. They defy what little grasp children have of how the world works. They would never, could never, harm anyone. Their sole purpose is to be. Yet in the hands of a three-year-old, there are only two ways the story ends. Either this airborne piece of friendship quite literally explodes in the kid's face, or the string breaks and it floats away to the sky, laughing like a wind spirit. "You didn't love me enough, goodbye F-O-R-E-V-E-R!"

Thanks a lot, balloon. Way to suck.

Luckily, this isn't going to be a problem for much longer. The United States is about twenty-five years away from running out of — wait a minute, what? Seriously? We're running out of helium? You have absolutely got to be joking. Is there no end to the ways in which we will ruin this stupid, inadequate planet?

Don't get too used to this.

Unfortunately, this is true. Our national reserves of helium are being irreparably depleted, much like our available supply of oil, gas, baby owls, left-handed relievers, and Coke with real sugar. As the Washington Post puts it, "we're close to running out of the second most common element in the universe," which is such a beautiful, sad, hilarious sentence that I genuinely wish that I had written it. And that I could fly to Mars in a pirate ship. Mostly the latter.

The tale of how this situation arose is, to be blunt, completely baffling. This is not meant as a dig at the Post, it's just that there's a whole rigmarole involving the federal government, economic pricing strategy, and spongy rocks. Let's see if I can distill this into layman's terms. Back in the early 1900s, helium was viewed as a strategic resource, so the US established nope. Totally can't distill this into layman's terms. Let's bust out some block quotes instead:

Helium was first seen as a strategic resource in the early years of the 20th century, when lighter-than-air dirigibles seemed to have military potential. The Federal Helium Program was established in 1925; in 1960, the reserve was created under the control of the former U.S. Bureau of Mines. The government site occupies 11,000 acres on the edge of the Hugoton-Panhandle Gas Field ... where helium and other gases permeate a layer of porous brown dolomite rock.

Still with us? The word "dirigible" got thrown in there, not sure if you caught that.

During the Cold War, the Bureau continued to extract, hoard and refine helium; it also began purchasing helium from private drillers and pumping it into the reserve, going $1.4 billion into debt in the process. But the Cold War fizzled, the expected global demand for helium did not materialize, and in 1996, Congress ... passed the Helium Privatization Act, now requiring the Bureau of Land Management to stop refining helium by 1998 and sell off the reserve by Jan. 1, 2015.

This is starting to read like the speech that killed William Henry Harrison.

Congress established a formula for pricing the helium, based on the minimum price necessary to recover the $1.4 billion. But [the National Research Council] ... issued a report in January warning that the formula priced helium so low that users had no incentive to preserve it, recover it or search for new sources.

Aaaaaaaaand my nose is bleeding. So much for the block quotes. Long story unchanged in length — while everyone's been inhaling balloons to prank-dial 911, no one mentioned that the needle on the helium gauge was dwindling towards "E." This may sound like a medium-ish problem, but bear two things in mind. First, the practical uses for helium go far beyond party favors, and into the realm of vital industrial coolants for things like MRI machines and the Large Hadron Collider. (The LHC? Oh, shizzle!) Second, helium that escapes into the atmosphere, as balloons or otherwise, cannot be retrieved. Ever. It is simply ... gone.

Thanks a lot, helium. Way to suck.