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Looming gap in weather satellites threatens forecasting

Jun. 20, 2011 - 11:33AM   |  
By BART JANSEN   |   Comments
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in April that the data gap caused by the delayed launch will have serious consequences.
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in April that the data gap caused by the delayed launch will have serious consequences. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Congressional budget cutting will delay the launch of a key weather satellite and hinder tracking of killer hurricanes, tornadoes and other severe weather, officials warn.

The satellite, which had been scheduled to launch in 2016, will be postponed 18 months because of spending cuts and delays. The threat during that gap is that National Weather Service forecasts will become fuzzier, with the paths of hurricanes and tornadoes even less predictable.

With more budget cuts looming, further delays are possible something President Obama alluded to last week.

In an interview with NBC's "Today" show Tuesday, the president acknowledged the need to reduce federal debt but said "really important" priorities include ensuring "government functions like food safety or weather satellites are still up there."

The satellite at stake is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Joint Polar Satellite System.

The program is crucial for weather forecasting because polar satellites circle Earth every 90 minutes, scanning the entire planet twice every day. By flying only 517 miles above the surface, polar satellites give a sharper view than stationary satellites that float 22,300 miles above a specific place.

The problem is that expensive polar satellites are built to last five years, although they have fuel for seven. The looming gap would occur after a satellite scheduled for launch in September ends its useful life.

NOAA satellites share weather duties with the Defense Department and European satellites. But the one at stake in the current budget debate is responsible for the afternoon orbit, which is more important for weather, while Defense focuses on the morning orbit, which is more important for the military.

"There will be a data gap. That data gap will have very serious consequences to our ability to do severe storm warnings, long-term weather forecasts, search and rescue and good weather forecasts," Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in April.

A polar satellite detects when ingredients such as moisture and winds look ripe for storms. The weather service then posts "outlooks" warning five to eight days ahead of possible violent storms. On storm day, the service's Storm Prediction Center posts "watches" several hours ahead.

Forecasters issued warnings five days ahead of tornadoes that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., and five other states in April. A barrage of 312 tornadoes swept across the Southeast, killing 321 people. On storm day, forecasters gave warnings averaging 27 minutes before actual touchdowns.

Likewise, when a tornado struck Joplin, Mo., killing 151 on May 22, forecasters gave warnings averaging 24 minutes before strikes.

"The satellites are an important part of that early warning process," said Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the service.

Without the replacement polar satellite, forecasters would have half the information to track the moisture and wind patterns that percolate into violent storms.

Lubchenco said without information from the polar satellite, forecasts for a massive storm nicknamed "snowmageddon," which hit Washington in February 2010, would have had the location wrong by 200 to 300 miles and would have underestimated the snowfall by 10 inches. Hurricane tracking would also suffer, she said.

"Our severe storm warnings will be seriously degraded," Lubchenco testified April 1 before the House Appropriations subcommittee governing the agency.

Lawmakers and scientists lauded the value of the program, which provides forecasts for military troop deployments, ocean search-and-rescue missions and farmers tending crops.

"It's important for public safety," said Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union. Cutting the funding "would be penny-wise and pound-foolish."

Lubchenco credited the satellites with helping save 295 people in 2010 by helping track rescue beacons aboard ships.

"That's saving lives, that's saving money," said Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House panel that oversees NOAA funding.

But reduced federal spending threatens all domestic programs. Congress cut spending $38.5 billion in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. House Republicans propose to cut another $30 billion next year.

Obama has proposed $5.5 billion for NOAA in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, including a $688 million boost for the polar satellite.

But the agency received $4.6 billion this year $947 million less than requested and lawmakers warned that a hefty increase was unlikely. The House Appropriations subcommittee is to vote on its budget July 7.

"The fiscal crisis facing the nation is real and will require a level of austerity that goes beyond the present budget," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who heads the panel.

Another appropriator, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she would fight Republicans for a funding freeze rather than cuts to avoid harming programs such as weather satellites.

"There are serious cuts being implemented now," Landrieu said. "This senator from Louisiana is willing to try to balance the budget, but I am not willing to do any more reductions without revenues being put on the table."

Bart Jansen reports for the Gannett Washington Bureau.

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