Contributing to the shortage are production problems straining suppliers' ability to meet the growing demand for helium, including construction delays or maintenance troubles at plants being built or already operational in Qatar, Algeria, Wyoming and elsewhere.
Like fossil fuels, there is a finite amount of helium on Earth. The federal government maintains an underground helium reserve near Amarillo, Texas, that produces about 35 percent of the world's helium, the Bureau of Land Management said. A helium plant in the Oklahoma Panhandle closed in the 1980s.
There have been periodic helium shortages in the past, but scientists, industry experts and federal officials say this shortage is one of the worst in duration and scale.
Two years ago, Party Galaxy stopped selling the large tanks of helium it had offered customers since the business was founded in 1937. The company didn't have enough helium to fill the tanks and blow up balloons in the stores, Dillon said. They still sell smaller, disposable tanks which contain enough helium to fill about two dozen balloons, but it has taken suppliers months to fill orders for them.
So what's the alternative? Balloons on a stick, for one, which gives the illusion of a helium-filled balloon. Florists are also adding chocolates, stuffed animals, candles, lotion and other romantic items to floral arrangements.