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Funding shortfall could worsen weather forecasting gap

Mar. 7, 2012 - 05:58PM   |  
By LEDYARD KING   |   Comments
A Marysville, Ind., resident salvages what he can from his family's home that was destroyed by a tornado March 4.
A Marysville, Ind., resident salvages what he can from his family's home that was destroyed by a tornado March 4. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The head of the agency in charge of the National Weather Service warned House lawmakers Tuesday that a forecasting gap anticipated for later this decade will last longer if they don't fully fund the administration's request for a new satellite.

The satellite, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), is crucial in tracking hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather phenomena that give emergency officials time to prepare and react, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials.

The current orbiter is scheduled to be retired in 2016 and NOAA officials predicted last year its replacement might not be operational for 18 months after that.

Those concerns were allayed somewhat last year when Congress approved a big boost in funding for fiscal 2012, but it's unclear if that increase shortened the gap.

Now, the administration is asking for another increase that would provide about $2 billion for its satellite program in fiscal 2013 about 40 percent of the nearly $5.1 billion NOAA is seeking for its entire budget.

The money would help pay for the JPSS and a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) satellite used to forecast temperature changes, enabling energy providers to prepare for swings in demand.

"Together they will inform what we need to keep people safe," NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told members of a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee. "Without full funding, the risk that there would be a more significant [forecasting] gap increases greatly."

Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who chaired Tuesday's hearing, said he has "grave concerns" about whether the agency can meet its own timetable, given the history of delays and cost overruns associated with the satellite programs. He said those problems are forcing large reductions in important activities such as monitoring oceans and fisheries.

"Even NOAA's own optimistic schedule of a launch of the next polar satellite in the early part of 2018 and I say optimistic since it took 18 years to get the first satellite off the ground still leaves us with an ‘almost certain' gap in data availability," Harris told Lubchenco. "The extreme weather events just last week further highlight the importance of this data to saving lives and property."

Harris also criticized NOAA's budget request, saying the agency would spend three times more on climate research ($212 million) than on research on weather and air chemistry.

"Given the potential for innovations in weather forecasting to greatly aid the economy and save lives and property, the continued prioritization of climate over weather is highly disappointing and should be rejected by Congress," he told Lubchenco.

Ledyard King reports for the Gannett Washington Bureau.

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