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Weather, Climate Forecasts Imperiled as Programs Cut

A “near-perfect storm” of factors has contributed to a rapid decline in America’s Earth observation capabilities, as long-running satellite missions end and new ones struggle to get off the ground, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). If recent trends continue, there could be major ramifications in the form of less accurate weather and climate forecasts, as well as blind spots in monitoring a wide range of natural hazards.

All of this comes at a time when humans are having large, and in many cases, poorly understood effects on the natural environment, said Dennis L. Hartmann, the chair of the NRC committee that wrote the report and a professor at the University of Washington at Seattle.

This NASA "Blue Marble" image of Earth was generated from data produced by the Suomi NPP Satellite. Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA.

During just the next eight years, U.S. Earth observation capabilities are likely to decline to roughly 25 percent of current levels, Hartmann said.

“We need those observations from space more than we ever have before, and just when we’re going to need them the most they’re not going to be there,” he said.

The NRC report, which was released on May 2, updates a decadal assessment of Earth science applications from space, which was published in 2007. The new report finds that while NASA has made progress launching some of the missions that were in development at that time, the agency’s Earth science program faces continued budget shortfalls that will prevent it from realizing its goals. The NRC had planned for the Earth science program to be funded at $2 billion per year, but the actual funding level has consistently fallen below that.

In addition, Congress and the White House have expanded the scope of some programs without providing corresponding increases in funding levels, causing some projects to overpromise and underdeliver. 

The report recommends that NASA implement new approaches to cope with more stringent cost constraints while still developing new observing systems. NASA has already taken some innovative steps to maintain data-gathering capabilities despite the loss of satellite data. During a gap between satellites that detect changes in land-based ice, the agency has been flying jet aircraft above Greenland and Antarctica to keep tabs on the ice for a project known as IceBridge.

In addition, the report finds that budgetary shortfalls and cost overruns in the satellite Earth observation programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the Commerce Department, have also hampered the development and deployment of new Earth observing systems, including weather satellites. NOAA ran up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and delays and a lack of funding from Congress have put that program years behind schedule. (A Senate Appropriations Subcommittee recently approved a bill that would transfer responsibility for building four weather satellites from NOAA to NASA.) 

Unlike geostationary weather satellites, which orbit a fixed point along the equator, polar-orbiting satellites continuously scan the planet from north to south. Instruments aboard these satellites are used for many applications in addition to weather forecasting, such as monitoring volcanic eruptions, gathering sea surface temperature data, and locating emergency beacons from aviators or mariners in distress.

The Suomi NPP Satellite is launched from Vandenberg, AFB in Calif. on Oct. 28, 2011. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

NOAA projects that, starting in about 2017, there will be at least a yearlong gap between the end of the newest polar orbiting satellite’s design lifetime and the scheduled launch date of its replacement. That would bring the country down to one functioning polar orbiting weather satellite, instead of the typical two, which could affect the accuracy of routine three- to seven-day weather forecasts, since data gathered by the satellites’ sensors are used by weather forecasting models.

NOAA said that polar satellite data proved crucial for forecasting the heavy snowstorms that paralyzed the Mid-Atlantic region in 2009 and 2010, including the “Snowmageddon” blizzard.

The NRC report includes an analysis showing that a particular data product from the polar satellites, known as an atmospheric sounding, can reduce the forecast error in one widely-used weather forecasting model by as much as 16 to 18 percent. The soundings provide details about wind speed and direction in the upper atmosphere for locations not sampled by ground-based radars, weather balloon launches, or other methods.

Last year, NASA launched a $1.5 billion polar-orbiting satellite mission known as the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP), which is acting as a bridge between the current polar satellites and the next generation of polar satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS. The Suomi NPP satellite was originally supposed to be a test vehicle for the new fleet, but was put into service in order to prevent an even longer gap in data gathering.

Antonio Busalacchi, a report co-author and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, said program delays and cost overruns are not isolated to NOAA or NASA. “This is a problem that is above both those agencies,” Busalacchi said. “We are lacking a national strategy for sustaining long-term environmental space-based observation.”

The report calls for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop an interagency framework on Earth observation capabilities. The NRC called for this back in 2007, but it has not been followed up on.

In addition to the fiscal challenges, NASA and NOAA face a more fundamental problem – a shortage of highly reliable affordable rockets to launch new satellites into space. Earth observation satellites are typically launched on medium-class rockets, but one of the medium-class rocket models has had major setbacks in the past couple of years, failing twice during launch, once in 2009 and again in 2011, taking out new weather and climate-related satellites with them – including the Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

Hitching a ride on larger rockets can be more expensive, underscoring the hurdles the programs face. “The cost of access to space is going through the roof,” Busalacchi said.