NewsFebruary 26, 2013

Budget Cuts May Degrade Weather, Climate Forecasting

Search results placeholder
Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

Across-the-board federal spending cuts  that are scheduled to go into effect starting on March 1 are likely to cause further delays to weather and climate satellite programs, and may degrade the government’s ability to issue timely and accurate early warnings of extreme weather and climate events, according to federal officials and atmospheric scientists.

The cuts, also known as the “sequester,” will take effect unless Congress reaches a new spending deal by Friday. Sequester makes cuts in mandatory spending, such as on Medicare and Social Security, as well as discretionary spending that together add up to $1.2 trillion over nine years, beginning in 2013. Those cuts would chop 8.2 percent from the operating budgets of most federal agencies and would result in a $551 million cut to the Department of Commerce, which houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Flat Earth” image of the planet at night taken by a polar-orbiting satellite.
Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA/NOAA.

In a Feb. 8 letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank said the sequester would cause a 2- to 3-year delay in the production and deployment of the first two next-generation geostationary weather satellites, a program known as GOES-R. The first two GOES-R satellites are currently scheduled to launch in 2015 and 2017.

Any delays in GOES-R would put that satellite program on the same shaky ground as NOAA’s troubled polar-orbiting satellite program, which has run billions of dollars over budget and is years behind schedule.

“This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” Deputy Secretary Blank said. “It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage — especially to our weather preparedness.”

The cuts come at a time when the U.S. has been grappling with a scourge of high impact extreme weather events, including Hurricane Sandy and a massive drought. Last year was the second-most expensive year from natural disasters on record in the U.S. since 1980. Climate studies have shown that manmade global warming is heightening the risk and severity of some extreme events, particularly heat waves and wildfires. Recent federal assessments show that extreme events will be more of a challenge in coming decades as the climate continues to warm.

The GOES-R program is aimed at updating the aging fleet of satellites that orbit above a fixed point on Earth, at an altitude of about 22,300 miles above the planet, and a speed that matches Earth’s rotation. 

Those satellites provide many of the images seen on television weather broadcasts, and they are vital for monitoring developing weather conditions, providing a constant vigil for severe storms such as hurricanes.

Infrared satellite image of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012, taken by the Suomi-NPP polar-orbiting satellite. 
Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA/NOAA.

NOAA’s policy is to maintain two operational GOES satellites and one backup satellite in orbit at all times. That approach proved its value as recently as September 2012, when NOAA experienced temporary problems with one of its GOES satellites and was able to maneuver a backup satellite into place to keep a steady supply of data flowing to forecasters.

However, starting in April 2015, NOAA expects to have two operational satellites in orbit, but without a backup until the first GOES-R satellite is launched and completes a six-month long testing period. Therefore, any slippage in the GOES-R launch schedule would mean there would be a longer period without any redundancy in deployed satellites.

On Feb. 14, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) included “mitigating gaps in satellite data” on its annual list of the top 30 challenges facing the federal government, also known as its “high-risk list.”

“Any further delays in the GOES-R program would likely increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage,” the GAO report said. The GAO also included managing climate change risks on the same high-risk list.

Outgoing NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco told Climate Central on Feb. 15 that the sequester will have significant impacts on the agency. “It’s not going to be pretty,”she said. “The sequester has the potential to wreak havoc with so many different things, and satellites loom large within that. There’s just so much uncertainty. Nobody knows how long it might last, and it’s very difficult to plan for that.”

Marshall Shepherd, the president of the American Meteorological Society, said a degradation in satellite coverage could leave the U.S. much more vulnerable to extreme weather events at a time when certain extreme events are becoming more intense and frequent, and are having greater consequences. “We’ve gotten very accustomed to having these satellite sentinels there looking at the weather,” he said in an interview. Any delays in these satellite programs, he said, “not only jeopardize our ability to monitor weather, but it’s something the public would notice.”

Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, said the sequestration-related impacts on NOAA’s satellite programs should be viewed in a risk-management context. “These satellites are our first line of defense for climate change,” Colleton said. “We’ve heard the [Obama] administration talk about climate strategy, and what steps to take, I think this ought to be the first step, to make sure the country has the tools and technologies the country needs to better manage risk.”

Polar-Orbiting Satellite Program May Be Less Affected

The sequester is not expected to significantly affect the timeline of the new generation of polar-orbiting satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System or JPSS. Congress provided additional funding for the program in the continuing resolution that is funding federal agencies through the end of March, and another continuing resolution is widely expected to extend through the end of the current fiscal year in September.

Artist's concept of the GOES-R satellite in geostationary orbit around the Earth.
Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NOAA.

NOAA has already been planning for a likely gap in polar-orbiting satellite coverage starting in 2017 and lasting for a year or more. This gap is expected to affect the accuracy of medium-range weather forecasts in particular, since instruments aboard these satellites, which scan the Earth from north to south each day, provide the majority of data that goes into high-tech weather forecasting models.

The polar-orbiting satellites gather data on winds and moisture in the upper atmosphere, which complements information coming from weather balloons that are launched twice daily across the country. The satellites have the advantage of scanning the atmosphere over the oceans, which lack weather balloon coverage.

The next generation of polar-orbiting satellites has been delayed by mismanagement, billions in cost overruns, and technical development challenges. That has pushed back the launch date of the next polar-orbiting satellite to 2017 at the earliest, which is past the design lifetime of the youngest polar-orbiting satellite currently in orbit.

In addition to the satellite program delays, the Commerce Department also told Congress that up to 2,600 NOAA employees would be furloughed if the sequester takes effect. About 2,700 open positions would also not be filled, and about 1,400 contractors would get pink slips. “If sequestration is enacted, NOAA will face the loss of highly trained technical staff and partners,” the Commerce Department’s letter said. “As a result, the government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error and, the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high-impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised.”

It is unclear if the NOAA staff reductions will include the National Weather Service, since the agency received about $10 million in additional funding from the Hurricane Sandy relief and recovery legislation enacted on Jan. 29.

However, even if it does not have to cut staff, the NWS might be forced to reduce maintenance and upgrades to its national Doppler radar network, which is used for monitoring precipitation and severe storms and is a key tool for detecting tornadoes, as well as upgrading its computer network. Also, hurricane research flights might be curtailed.

“Whether that actually happens, who knows, but if you are having to curtail operations of basic systems, that’s a big deal,” Shepherd said.

Editor's Note: Climate Central receives some research funding for its scientific work from NOAA climate research grants  which could be affected by the sequester  but those programs are separate from Climate Central's editorial operations.

Related Content
NOAA Head: Weather Forecasts At Risk Over Budget Cuts
Key Weather Satellite Goes Offline, May Affect Forecasts
NOAA Seeks Public Input on Looming Satellite Gap
Top 5 Weather and Climate Challenges Facing White House