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No More Weather?

May 14, 2012 - One of the more sophisticated devices available to climatologists in their struggle to gain further understanding of the changing climate is the polar-orbiting satellite.  Capable of continuously scanning our planet from north to south, instruments aboard the satellite can also monitor volcanic eruptions, gather sea surface temperatures, and locate emergency beacons indicating aviators or mariners in distress.  Oh yes, and they help forecast the weather.  Without these satellites, weather and climate forecasts are less accurate.  Furthermore, climatologists' ability to monitor natural disasters declines significantly.

The NRC (National Research Council) has issued a new report concerning ongoing satellite programs, an update of a decadal report published in 2007.  Long story short, these programs are in trouble.  I'll bet you'll never guess what the problem is!  Gosh, you're good: not enough money.  While the launching of the next satellite was to have been funded at $2 billion per year, such has not been the case.  Those of you familiar with Bush's funding m.o. will recall that he commonly proposed or renewed programs, only to underfund them, or, in some cases, provide no funding at all.  No Child Left Behind was a good example of the underfunding approach.

Gaps in funding have necessitated the use of jet aircraft for the purpose of observing changes in land-based ice (think Greenland and Antarctica).  Over the next eight years, U.S. observation capabilities are expected to decline by 75 percent.  While budgetary shortfalls bear a share of the blame for inadequate funding, cost overruns have also played a part.  According to the NRC's report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has spent too much on their Earth observation programs, in contravention of their reduced budget.  (It's entirely possible it never occurred to Congress to ask them what effect a reduced budget would have on their work, which may have been impossible to interrupt partway through.)  As a result, implementation of polar-orbiting weather satellites is now years behind schedule.  The Senate recently approved a bill transferring responsiblity for building four weather satellites from the NOAA to NASA.

The NOAA's faltering schedule is forecast to result in a yearlong gap between the retirement of an old weather satellite and the launch of the next.  While America's weather and climate scientists can normally count upon the services of two polar-orbiting satellites, this would reduce the active number to one.  For this reason, NASA launched what was to have been a test mission last year.  The satellite, known as Suomi NPP, was put into service so that an even longer gap in data gathering could be prevented.

Last but not least, putting satellites into orbit is becoming a cost-prohibitive endeavor.  Medium-class rockets are the typical conveyance for satellites, but one medium-class model has endured major setbacks, including two launch failures which destroyed the passenger satellites.  Larger model rockets can certainly carry satellites, but are very expensive.  The NRC's report calls for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a framework on which to base Earth observation policy.  It's entirely possible that without such a policy, the United States will be without Earth observation technology at the very moment in history when it needs it the most.

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