Thursday, March 4, 2021
March 4, 2021

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Strong winds threaten big balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

If gusts, sustained winds are too great, giant balloons could be grounded for safety


Strong winds may jeopardize the acclaimed balloon display at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, with the forecast winds nearing a threshold set by the city of New York to ensure safety. Jumbo balloons, each with an arsenal of handlers on the ground, are one of the most popular displays in the nationally televised parade festivities.

Except for a brief suspension during World War II, the parade has been held continuously since 1924. It has taken place in all types of weather, including temperatures last year that hovered around 20 degrees. But after a disastrous episode in 1997, city officials have put in place regulations to prevent strong winds from endangering parade-goers.

During the 1997 parade, a Cat in the Hat balloon veered off course because of high winds, knocking a light pole into a crowd and injuring four spectators, two of whom suffered serious injuries.

An oversize Barney balloon also succumbed to the high winds that year, deflating after being punctured by a light pole.

Several other balloons were reportedly damaged, as well.

In the wake of the event, the city of New York bolstered protective measures, installing instruments to monitor wind along the parade route. “Based on the city’s guidelines, no giant character balloon will be operated when there are sustained wind conditions exceeding 23 mph and wind gusts exceeding 34 mph,” wrote Orlando Veras, a spokesperson for Macy’s.

“We’re dealing with kind of a mixture of both” winds and gusts, said Matthew Wunsch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in New York. “Sustained winds will be decently strong, from 17 to 22 mph, with gusts upward of 35 mph.”

As any New Yorker knows, the funneling of winds between buildings could locally boost wind speeds. That could push a few gusts to near 40 mph.

Some of Macy’s balloons are taller than a five- or six-story building. Take the 67-foot Ronald McDonald balloon, for example. One of the larger balloons, it has 90 handlers making sure it doesn’t stray from the parade route, and it can exert a few tons of force if the winds push it fast enough. This would be more than sufficient to knock over light poles, people or other objects it might encounter.

“We are always attuned to weather conditions for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” wrote Veras. “At this time, it is too early to make any determinations regarding the flight of the Parade’s giant balloons, as we use on-the-scene data versus forecasts.”

New York City will be sandwiched between two weather systems on Thursday, with a tight air pressure gradient kicking up wind speeds. To the east, a wave of low pressure in association with a powerful storm over the Gulf of Saint Lawrence will be departing. Meanwhile, high pressure will be building in from the west. The tight pressure gradient between them will give rise to strong west-northwesterly winds, blowing from high pressure toward the area of low pressure (attempting to even out the imbalance).

The winds should remain feisty throughout the day on Thursday, tapering some by Friday. Despite the strong winds, the forecast is shaping up to feature predominantly blue skies over New York on Thursday.

“If the giant balloons are not able to fly, which has only happened due to extreme wind in 1971, we still have an amazing parade filled with entertainment for New York and the nation,” wrote Veras. “There will be 26 animated floats, dozens of celebrity performances, 40 smaller balloon inflatables, 1,200 cheerleaders and dancers, nine performance groups, 11 marching bands, 1,000 spirited clowns, Broadway’s best shows and the one and only Santa Claus.”


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