What we should be worried about now is what will happen when the BLM helium runs out. The 1996 act has addicted the global markets to artificially low prices. As the BLM raises its prices, global prices follow.
Earlier this year, scientists and industry experts testified before Congress about the problems with the Helium Privatization Act, arguing in favor of new legislation. They proposed the Helium Stewardship Act, which would grant the BLM more freedom in selling its reserves. But the new proposal still mandates selling off most of the reserve, and would cause much of it to still be sold at artificially low prices.
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade isn't exactly the biggest problem facing helium, but it's the most visible way to understand an element that is inert, invisible, and lighter than air. The 16 parade balloons require about 300,000 cubic feet of helium combined. Assuming a drugstore balloon is 1 cubic foot (that's being a bit generous) that's 18,750 drugstore balloons for each parade one. The parade has experimented with recycling helium from some of the smaller balloons, and a Macy's spokesperson says that they are inflating balloons with combinations of helium and air to cut down on helium use. But Macy's says, "the technology is currently not there yet to reclaim the gas in a meaningful way."
So enjoy Spider-Man flying down Sixth Avenue, or the Elf on the Shelf bouncing down Central Park West quietly judging you and your children. Remember them years from now, as the helium supply diminishes and demand continues to grow, raising prices and leaving us with defunct MRI machines and deflated balloons.
Krule is a Slate copy editor. Prywes is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University.