Budget Cuts Mean '18-Month Gap' in Crucial Weather Data, Says Ocean Agency

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

If passed into law, the federal budget for 2011 that lawmakers will vote on this week will harm key efforts in daily weather forecasting, search-and-rescue operations, and long-term weather prediction, says a top U.S. government official. Speaking at a Senate committee hearing this afternoon, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said that the $4.5 billion level for NOAA's budget this year set by congress would delay the launch of the first satellite in the $12 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) from 2016 to 2018.

Polar satellites are uniquely important for weather prediction. Whereas geostationary crafts orbit over fixed points some 36,000 km above Earth's surface, polar crafts like JPSS-1 will whiz around Earth in a north-south direction at an altitude of 770 km, providing much finer data resolution and scanning every point on Earth as the planet spins. JPSS-1 would acquire a "much better quality" temperature and moisture profile than those of geostationary weather satellites, says JPSS Deputy Director Ajay Mehta. Plus polar crafts fill gaps in coverage, he says: "There's really no imagery for Alaska, for example, if you rely just on geostationary satellites."

For years, concern about NOAA's troubled polar satellite program has focused on climate sensors, six of which were stripped from JPSS's predecessor, NPOESS, in 2006, to preserve weather data. But now weather information itself is in jeopardy. In October, NASA intends to launch a polar satellite, the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), that would gather data similar to that gathered by JPSS-1. But according to its design life, NPP will not function after 2017. That would leave an 18-month data gap between the end of the NPP mission and launch of JPSS-1, Lubchenco says.

JPSS-1's launch will be delayed in part because NOAA's $4.5 billion budget under the 2011 bill is roughly $1 billion lower than what the Obama Administration requested; roughly 80% of the cut comes from the procurement, acquisition, and construction part of the agency's budget. Congressional dithering has also put the JPSS program behind schedule, Mehta says. (NOAA expressed similar concerns last month.) Because of the budget uncertainty, Mehta says, NOAA has done almost no work on JPSS since last October.

A data gap between NPP and JPSS in 2017 could have profound consequences.

Several polar satellites fly in formation, passing the same points on Earth in sequence every 8 hours or so. The U.S. military DMSP program covers the so-called morning orbit, DMSP and European crafts share coverage of the midday orbit, and NPP and JPSS-1 cover the afternoon orbit. Having data from all three orbits is important, but Mehta says that data from NOAA crafts are uniquely tailored for U.S. weather prediction for short- and medium-term forecasts. Loss of the afternoon data would mean a "50% error increase in [forecasting] precipitation rates in southern US," according to a NOAA presentation. "Future errors of this scale could result in flood forecast error providing less time for population to react and increasing risk to life and property (hours vs days)." Search-and-rescue operations at sea could also be jeopardized by the gap, because JPSS includes a crucial sensor that listens for emergency signals sent by emergency beacons.

Cutting the satellite budget will likely cost taxpayers more in the end. NOAA expects to end up spending roughly $650 million less on JPSS-1 this year than it had planned. But "for every dollar we didn't spend [on satellites] in 2011, we will have to spend $3 to $5 in the future," Lubchenco told lawmakers today.

*This item has been amended to clarify that the $4.5 billion level is the 2011 level for NOAA.

Posted in Funding, Climate Budget 2011