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Funding cut may jeopardize satellite for weather, flood, drought forecasts

While much of the South was being ravaged last week by tornadoes and increasing chunks of the Mississippi River Valley were threatened with flooding of epic proportion, a key weather forecasting satellite program was in limbo as a result of congressional budget cuts.

The $1 billion funding cut in the fiscal 2011 budget would, at best, delay launch of the first satellite in the $12 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) from 2016 to 2018, but even longer if funds aren’t restored in the fiscal 2012 budget. Costs would be pushed far beyond original estimates.

Without the new “bird” to replace older, less sophisticated satellites that are expected to fail over the next several years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecasts for the southern U.S. could lose as much as 50 percent of their accuracy, says Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator.

This would “almost certainly” cause gaps in weather forecasting that has become increasingly accurate in the past decade as computers have become more powerful and accumulated data from satellites and ground/sea stations have allowed more detailed modeling of weather patterns.

Polar satellites, which are in lower orbit than geostationary satellites, provide a much closer, sharper resolution of Earth and are extremely important to a huge contingent of users, from the military to general aviation, maritime transportation, emergency responders, to agriculture.

Farmers rely on polar satellites for drought, extreme temperature, and length of growing season information to plan their plantings and determine which type of crop to grow.

Droughts are among the greatest natural hazards — estimated to be $6 billion to $8 billion annually in the U.S.,  affecting not only agriculture, but transportation, recreation and tourism, forestry, and energy sectors. The 1999 drought, for example, led to farm net income losses of approximately $1.35 billion, according to USDA estimates.

There are only three polar satellites systems covering the globe: NOAA’s, the Department of Defense DMSP satellite, and Europe’s EUMETSAT. All three pool their data to give scientists a full view of the globe — including the poles. There are approximately six passes over any particular spot on the globe each day, which is particularly important for changing situations such as fast-moving hurricanes and wildfires, as well as for major flooding.

“There is no other polar orbiting satellite that will be flying in the orbit that JPSS was intended to fly,” Lubchenco told a Senate Commerce subcommittee. “There is no redundancy — there will be a data gap. I can tell you that for every dollar we didn’t spend this year on JPSS, we will need to spend $3 to $5 down the road.”

And while the anti-government crowd retorts, “Who cares? Let ‘em watch the Weather Channel,” the reality is, Lubchenco says, that NOAA satellites provide “98 percent of the information that goes into our weather forecasts. These satellites do a wide variety of things that are very important to saving lives and property and enabling commerce in our country.”

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