Releasing balloons at football games combines science and tradition


It's a familiar sight on football Saturdays in Lincoln: A Husker player, with a red N on his helmet, races up the sidelines, ducks a defender and hurdles into the end zone for the game's first touchdown. Eighty-five thousand screaming fans slap hands and release thousands of red balloons into the Nebraska sky.

This peculiar custom isn't as recognizable as the Tunnel Walk, but it outdates it by more than 40 years and its history is shrouded in mystery.

There is no exact date for the first balloon release, and by most accounts, the earliest recorded ballooning release was in 1963, one year after Bob Devaney took the position of head coach of the Nebraska football program.

"My predecessor, Don Bryant, has been here since those early Devaney days," said Chris Anderson, the director of athletic community relations. "He told me it dated back to sometime in the early Devaney era."

The most popular question being asked by inquisitive children and inebriated college students is, "Where do the balloons go? Do they float straight up to space or do they pop and fall back down to earth?"

The question isn't a simple answer. Depending on the winds and temperature, the balloons may float in a number of directions. This complex question is best explained by Adam Houston, assistant professor of atmospheric convection, severe weather and climate diagnostics in the University of Nebraska—Lincoln's Earth and atmospheric science department.

"Assuming a fixed ascent rate of, say, two meters per second, they would ascend to about one mile above the surface in about 15 minutes," Huston said. "They would also be transported horizontally with the winds."

Using this past Saturday as an example, Houston further examined the effect wind has on the balloons.

"The strong winds on (this previous) Saturday would have taken the balloons a fair distance horizontally. After 15 minutes they probably would have been about 10 to 12 miles north of the stadium (the winds in the low levels were from the south and southeast). After an hour they probably would have been about 60 miles to the northeast (the winds in the upper levels were from the southwest). They also would have been nearly five miles above the ground."

If a rambunctious, lightweight Husker fan wanted to get a bird's eye view of Memorial Stadium, scientists estimate that about 4,000 standard balloons would be needed to take the fan about the stadium at a considerable rate. The problem with is that once the ballooning adventurer flew high enough, the balloons would pop and send the Husker fan spiraling toward Memorial Stadium, creating a real mess on the 50-yard line.

With green technology and environmentally friendly issues coming to the forefront of just about every issue, is the EPA worried about the thousands of pieces of balloon trash being dumped from the sky?

Not necessarily.

"Many years ago we switched to biodegradable balloons," Anderson said. "That way we can keep the tradition alive without hurting the environment."

Additionally, when the balloons reach their maximum height of about five miles, the atmospheric pressure causes the balloons to expand and eventually shatter into thousands of tiny little pieces, which makes it nearly impossible for animals to eat.

Houston also addressed the issue of these hordes of balloons affecting airplanes flying in and out of the nearby Lincoln airport. "Theoretically (the balloons could interfere with airplanes), yes," Houston said. "(But) the FAA hasn't attempted to regulate balloon releases like this, which means that the probability of them interfering with air traffic is very low."