Blind Eye In The Sky: Weather Satellites Lose Funding

Jun 17, 2011
Originally published on June 17, 2011 7:20 pm

Government officials are forecasting a turbulent future for the nation's weather satellite program.

Federal budget cuts are threatening to leave the U.S. without some critical satellites, the officials say, and that could mean less accurate warnings about events like tornadoes and blizzards. In particular, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are concerned about satellites that orbit over the earth's poles rather than remaining over a fixed spot along the equator.

These satellites are "the backbone" of any forecast beyond a couple of days, says Kathryn Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, and NOAA's deputy administrator.

It was data from polar satellites that alerted forecasters to the risk of tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi back in April, Sullivan says. "With the polar satellites currently in place we were able to give those communities five days' heads up," she says.

But that level of precision could diminish in the next few years, Sullivan says.

One important NOAA satellite in a polar orbit will reach the end of its expected life around 2016. And its replacement has been delayed by a continuing resolution passed by Congress that limits the agency's ability to pursue its new Joint Polar Satellite System.

Sullivan says that means there could be more than a year when the nation is lacking a crucial eye in the sky.

"If we go blind, if there actually is a gap between the last satellite and this, it certainly will erode the reliability and accuracy of our forecasts," she says.

To find out how bad the problem might be, the National Weather Service re-examined one of its great forecasting successes: the 2010 blizzard known as "Snowmageddon."

The agency wanted to know what would happen if a similar blizzard arrived several years from now, when several satellites are likely to be out of commission, says National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes.

"We were quite surprised at the finding that we would underestimate the amount of snowfall the Eastern Seaboard had, specifically in the Washington, D.C., area, by a factor of 2," Hayes says. In other words, areas where forecasts called for 15 inches would actually get 30 inches.

Budget problems aren't the only reason NOAA's next polar satellite is behind schedule. A previous version of the program was scrapped, and NOAA has had trouble getting some of the new satellite's cutting-edge technology finished on time.

But Hayes says this sort of technology is precisely what's made forecasting more accurate with each new generation of satellites.

NASA officials are also concerned about the next generation of weather satellites. The agency will play an important role in building them and also supplements data from NOAA weather satellites with data from its own research satellites.

"It used to be that weather was just something that happened," says Michael Freilich, who directs the earth science division at NASA. Now, he says, people and businesses make specific plans based on what forecasters say.

"When they say that it's going to be hot and sunny, companies make economic decisions," he says. For example, he says, utilities decide how much electricity they need to produce, airlines decide whether to cancel flights, schools decide whether to close, and insurance companies anticipate damage claims from things like hurricanes and hailstorms.

Other nations also fly polar satellites, and that can help fill the gap when U.S. units fail, officials say. But it's not enough, they say.

"The United States, by virtue of our size, the mountains, the oceans on three sides, we have the widest array and greatest frequency of weather phenomena and severe weather phenomena of any country on the planet," Sullivan says.

Some tweaks to NOAA's current budget could minimize delays to the polar satellite program, she says.

Whether the agency is allowed to do that is up to Congress, which will also decide what happens to spending on polar satellites next year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Government officials are forecasting a turbulent future for the nation's weather satellite program. Federal budget cuts are threatening to leave the U.S. without some critical satellites.

And as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, that would mean less accurate warnings about everything from tornadoes to blizzards.

JON HAMILTON: Most of the weather maps you see on TV or online are created with data from government satellites. Kathryn Sullivan is deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She says when you hear a long-term weather forecast, it's usually based on data from special NOAA satellites that orbit over the North and South poles.

Dr. KATHRYN SULLIVAN (Deputy Administrator, NOAA): The backbone of that forecast two days and beyond, any outlook two days and beyond, the backbone is the polar satellite system.

HAMILTON: Sullivan says that system allows people and businesses to plan much farther ahead than they could in the past.

Dr. SULLIVAN: So, for example, the tornado outbreak late April in Alabama and Mississippi, with the numerical weather forecast guidance, with the polar satellites currently in place, we were able to give those communities five days heads-up.

HAMILTON: But Sullivan says that sort of precision could diminish in the next few years.

One important NOAA satellite in a polar orbit will reach the end of its expected life around 2016, and its replacement has been delayed by across-the-board budget cuts.

Sullivan says that means there could be more than a year when the nation is lacking a crucial eye in the sky.

Dr. SULLIVAN: If we go blind, if there actually is a gap between the last satellite and this, it certainly will erode the reliability and accuracy of our forecasts.

HAMILTON: To find out how much, NOAA reexamined one of its great forecasting successes: the 2010 blizzard known as Snowmageddon.

Jack Hayes directs the National Weather Service. He says the agency wanted to know what would happen if something like Snowmageddon arrives several years from now, when several satellites are likely to be out of commission.

Dr. JACK HAYES (Director, National Weather Service): We were quite surprised at the finding that we would underestimate the amount of snowfall the Eastern Seaboard had, specifically in the Washington, D.C. area, by a factor of two, 50 percent less.

HAMILTON: Hayes says budget problems aren't the only reason NOAA's next polar satellite is behind schedule. There have also been problems getting some of its cutting-edge technology finished on time.

But Hayes says this sort of technology is what's made forecasting more accurate with each new generation of satellites.

NASA plays an important role in building those satellites and also provides data from some of its own research satellites to NOAA.

Michael Freilich, who directs the earth science division at NASA, says the U.S. has come to depend on reliable forecasts.

Dr. MICHAEL FREILICH (Director, Earth Science Division, NASA): It used to be that weather was just something that happened. None of us deal with weather that way.

HAMILTON: Freilich says, nowadays, when forecasters say it's going to rain in three or four days, we change travel plans.

Dr. FREILICH: But when they say that it's going to be hot and sunny, people make economic decisions. Companies make economic decisions, allocation of electrical resources and everything on that basis.

HAMILTON: Freilich says airlines, utilities, local governments and insurance companies rely heavily on the forecasting data that polar satellites provide.

And Kathryn Sullivan from NOAA says forecasting in the U.S. is more complicated than it is in most places.

Dr. SULLIVAN: The United States, by virtue of our size, the mountains, the oceans on three sides, we have the widest array and greatest frequency of weather phenomena and severe weather phenomena of any country on the planet.

HAMILTON: Sullivan says NOAA wants to tweak its current budget to minimize delays to the polar satellite program. Congress will decide whether they can and what happens to next's year satellite budget.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.