NOAA Weather Satellites Show Just How Hot It is, But Future of Weather Satellites is Murky

NOAA Weather Satellites Show Just How Hot It is, But Future of Weather Satellites is Murky

It is really hot here in Washington, DC today and it’s going to get hotter, but other parts of the country are much worse off. NOAA today released an animation based on satellite data of the extent of the heat wave blasting the United States.

A lot of attention has been focused on the deadly tornadoes and floods that have brutalized parts of the United States this year, but NOAA quotes Eli Jacks of the National Weather Service as saying that “Heat kills hundreds of Americans each year — more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, lightning or any other weather event combined.”

As the animation shows, the midwest is suffering the most. Jacks added that forecasts using environmental satellite data “give us the ability to warn the public as early as possible, so people can prepare and stay safe.”

Yesterday, the New York Times profiled Glenn Burns, an Atlanta meteorologist, as exemplifying weather forecasters who have gained almost hero status as their ability to predict severe weather events has improved dramatically. Some of those systems, like Doppler radar, are ground-based, but space-based systems also are crucial.

The data for NOAA’s animated map came from both sets of NOAA weather satellites: Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES). NOAA is struggling to get Congress to fund new satellites for those systems. The House Appropriations Committee cut $168 million from NOAA’s FY2012 request for the new polar-orbiting satellites — the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) — and $50 million from the GOES request.

Weather forecasts rely on data from NOAA’s geostationary system and a set of three satellites in polar orbit: NOAA’s POES, the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), and the European EUMETSAT organization’s Metop series. NOAA has launched all of its POES satellites and is anxiously awaiting the first in the JPSS series although FY2011 budget cuts have delayed that program. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has repeatedly warned Congress that an 18-month gap in NOAA polar weather satellite may result, but that did not persuade House appropriators to approve all of the $1.07 billion she requested for JPSS for FY2012. The House also cut funding for DOD’s DMSP replacement program, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), by just about half, approving $225 million of the $445 million request. That is troublesome, but DOD at least has two more DMSP satellites awaiting launch to tide them over until the new satellites are ready.

Europe is having its own woes. Space News reported on July 1 that four of EUMETSAT’s 26 member countries blocked approval of its new polar-orbiting system, EPS-SG. EUMETSAT’s last Metop satellite is expected to be launched in 2016, but Europe’s complicated approval process, which involves two multinational organizations — EUMETSAT and the European Space Agency (ESA) — means that decisions take years to accomplish.

NOAA is in the most precarious position, with no polar satellites “in the barn” awaiting launch. It will have to depend on a NASA satellite scheduled for launch later this year, NPP, that was not designed for operational use to supplement the POES satellites already in orbit. When they cease functioning, forecasts will be based on less data and could lose significant accuracy. NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathy Sullivan told a Women in Aerospace (WIA) conference in June that the February 2010 blizzard that hit the East Coast — “Snowmageddon” — would have been underforecast by 10 inches without the NOAA polar orbit satellite data. The impacts would have included stranded aircraft and airline passengers, stymied ground commerce, and a population “unprepared for paralyzing snow depth,” she said.

Tara Rothschild, a staffer for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, told the WIA conference that Congress understands the need for weather satellites, but many Members simply do not believe NOAA’s contention that there will be a data gap, and in any event, it would not be for many years. Everyone on Capitol Hill is focused on today, she said, not something that will happen in 2016 or later.

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