Hear the words “up, up and away” and you may think of balloons. But lately, you should also think about helium prices — because they’re soaring, too.

Thanks to the recession, natural gas production has slowed. And since helium is typically a byproduct of natural gas mining in the US, that’s led to a shortage and higher prices.

But lest you think that just means kids’ birthday parties will be less festive, think again — balloons only account for about 10 percent of helium usage. Most often, it’s used in MRI machines, high-tech manufacturing and physics research, so costs are rising there too.

“[The shortage] influences our ability to do research here because these are very expensive and important research tools,” said University of Windsor chemistry professor Rob Schurko. “Also, it influences the future viability of running MRIs, which is quite frightening.”

And because hospitals and manufacturing get first dibs on helium, that’s left florists and party supply stores with so little of it that some are reporting tank prices have tripled. The result? Consumers are feeling the pinch.

In other words, a balloon bouquet could soon be worth a lot more than its weight in gold.

[Time]