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NOAA: Weather satellites are in jeopardy

John D. Sutter
  • NOAA says funding for its prediction satellites is in danger
  • Satellites are used to predict severe weather and monitor climate change
  • Hurricane Irene is drawing attention to the topic

(CNN) -- It's easy enough to take for granted how much we know about the weather these days. Take Hurricane Irene: There are plenty of weather maps showing the path of that storm, which is churning through the Caribbean on its way to the East Coast of the United States. We have a pretty good idea of where Irene is heading and how strong it will be when it hits land.

All of this, of course, gives people in North Carolina and elsewhere days to stock up on food and plan an escape route -- just in case these predictions come true.

How do we know all this stuff? Because satellites are watching.

That's the point the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been trying to make lately as it campaigns to avoid budget cuts to its program for monitoring the Earth's oceans and weather from above the atmosphere.

Here's the most pressing point that NOAA's making: A significant weather satellite that orbits the Earth in a north-south direction will die in 2016. Unless funding is put in place soon, a new program to replace that satellite won't be ready nearly in enough time.

In a series of public appearances, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has been underlining the importance of satellites in forecasting weather.

At a meeting this month in Denver, she said there probably will be a gap of time when NOAA doesn't have any working satellites on a pole-to-pole orbit, according to The New York Times' Green blog. Those north-south satellites are "essential for supporting climate research as well as operational weather and storm forecasting for civil, military, and international partners," according to a White House budget document.

"I would argue that these satellites are critically important to saving lives and property and to enabling homeland security," Lubchenco was quoted as saying during that Denver meeting, held on August 17.

For hurricanes specifically, "a loss of polar-orbiting satellite observations will result in some degradation in hurricane track and intensity forecasts in the important 3-5 day coastal evacuation planning period," NOAA spokesman John Leslie wrote in an e-mail to CNN.

There are basically two kinds of NOAA satellites above the planet: those that orbit north-south, and those that hover over a particular piece of land by traveling with the rotation of the Earth. They serve complementary functions in observing and monitoring the climate and weather. Polar-orbiting satellites are much lower to the ground, at 540 miles above the surface, as opposed to more than 22,000 miles for the "geostationary" satellites, according to NOAA's website on its satellite programs. The north-south satellites also cover much more ground, since they loop the Earth approximately every 100 minutes.

The National Journal explains the politics of a transition from a satellite program called National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System to a new version, called the Joint Polar Satellite System:

"The plan for a smooth transition between the two systems was dependent upon NOAA receiving $1.06 billion in the FY11 budget, but last-minute budget negotiations made before a potential government shutdown left the agency with less than half that amount. Should Congress block President Obama's request for $1.07 billion, the time between NPOESS's expiration and the launch of JPSS could span longer."

The magazine continues: "At a briefing held on Capitol Hill earlier this month prior to the fall hurricane season, Berrien Moore, the Weather Center's director, said protecting satellite funding was in the interest of both parties. Fourteen senators, including John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., signed a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee to consider the weather satellite program in the 2012 budget."

The Washington Post reports that meteorologists and officials who coordinate disaster response support additional funding, too:

"Bill Hooke, a senior fellow at the American Meteorological Society, compared what forecasters would experience when a polar-orbiting satellite is lost to waking up after having a small stroke," Andrew Freedman writes in the newspaper. "'The world that you're looking at wouldn't seem quite right to you, and you wouldn't be able to function quite as well,' he said."

Scientific American says the fact that these satellites are used to track climate change as well as weather could make the budget request unpopular with legislators, some of whom see climate change as a sticky issue.

"The information those satellites collect is also key to understanding climate change -- an unpopular topic on Capitol Hill -- but the agency has downplayed that aspect as it presses lawmakers for more cash," that magazine writes.


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