Blow it up

Helium free?

Helium free?

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Extinction. A scary word, really. Perhaps one that, in the cosmic scheme of things, is an inevitable element of the natural order. But still a word that catches the breath. Something about the way we humans throttle through a world of finite resources has kicked the E-word up into the chill category.

Usually assigned to fauna, flora and long-failed notions—like beanbag chairs or slavery in Virginia—Auntie Ruth was dumbstruck to learn that the word extinction applies, also, to the elements. Specifically, helium.

And Auntie Ruth likes a good birthday party as well as the next person, and nothing says birthday kitsch more proudly than a balloon bouquet. While she always felt a little weird breathing helium into her lungs so she could talk like Alvin and the Chipmunkswhhhhhh, Auntie would breath in, and suddenly that strange voice in her throat belonged in a cartoon Christmas carol—little did she know that helium will vanish from this Earth in three decades, given current consumption rates. That “once it is released into the atmosphere, it is lost to the Earth forever,” according to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert C. Richardson (he’d reportedly charge $100 per birthday balloon). That while helium, given atomic No. 2, is so prevalent elsewhere in the universe that only hydrogen is more abundant, what little helium is present today on Earth has been mostly created by the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements (thorium and uranium).

According to Sierra magazine: “The bulk of the world’s dwindling supply, 1 billion cubic meters, currently rests in the underground Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas. … In 1996, Congress decided to liquidate the reserve by requiring that its contents be sold off by 2015.”

Why? Dunno. Its main commercial use is in MRI scanners.

And anyway. Extinction is oft-equated with the human quest for something important, like the right to drive wherever the hell you want in an SUV bigger than a Third World dwelling. Buy a Prius. Take a bus. Ride a bike. And blow up your balloons the old-fashioned way: with your lung power. Things, alas, have changed.

And they won’t stop.