Blind Eye In The Sky: Weather Satellites Lose Funding

Jun 17, 2011

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 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 (JPSS).

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 two," 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 plays 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 the 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 hail storms.

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 that is up to Congress, which will also decide what happens to spending on polar satellites next year.

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