NOAA Warns Of Gap In Future Forecasting Abilities

David Biello, associate editor, environment and energy, Scientific American, New York, N.Y.

NASA and NOAA satellites have been tracking Hurricane Irene as it barrels up the coast. But one type of NOAA satellite, which orbits the poles and helps predict severe weather like tornadoes and blizzards, may soon be out of commission—with no scheduled replacement—leaving NOAA with a blind eye.

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IRA FLATOW, host: It's been a record-setting year for disasters in the U.S. There was a Snowmageddon in the Northeast this winter, a huge number of deadly tornadoes in the spring, we had fires and drought and heat waves in the Southwest, record flooding on the Mississippi. And recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that, so far, we've had nine disasters totaling over $1 billion in damages each. That makes the total bill about $35 billion in damage, and we have barely scratched the hurricane season. Irene is headed up to, you know, wreak more havoc.

Who knows how much damage we might see from hurricanes before this year is out? How do we track all of these disasters? Well, for a lot of them, we rely on satellites. But Congress has already slashed NOAA's budget, threatening the future of a pair of satellites that do precisely this sort of severe weather monitoring, helping us predict the strength of blizzards and tornadoes. So does this make any sense? Don't we need to keep tabs on impending weather disasters to know whom to evacuate and when?

Joining me to talk about this is David Biello. He is an associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American here in New York. And he is in our New York studios. Welcome.

DAVID BIELLO: Thank you.

FLATOW: What kind of budget cutting are we talking about here?

BIELLO: Well, we're talking about the same kind of general austerity that we've seen throughout the U.S. government. As you may have noticed, there's been a standoff across the board, and this is budget cutting not just for NOAA but also for NASA. And this is an across-the-board cut in all of our Earth monitoring systems, and this is actually something that's been going on for about a decade now.

FLATOW: So, NASA has satellites that look down on Earth, and they help us watch these different events, tornadoes and hurricanes and things?

BIELLO: Correct. We have two kinds of weather satellites. There are the ones that sit in what's called geostationary orbit - that means that they kind of sit there and take a picture of one hemisphere at a time. That gives you some information. And then we have these polar-orbiting satellites. They go the opposite way, so they're kind of passing over the Earth while it's rotating past them underneath. And they give you a much more precise and detailed look at kind of rainfall and the other things we might like to know. Like, for example, it's how we know that Irene is probably going to dump about eight inches of rainfall across the entire East Coast.

FLATOW: So the budget cuts would affect NASA and NOAA.

BIELLO: Correct. And like I said, this is something that's been going on for a long time. We have decided, I guess, as a government, to abandon Earth observation in favor of things like Mars observation. And I would argue that, perhaps, we ought to pay more attention to our home rather than our neighbors.

FLATOW: Well, we had an earthquake and a hurricane, the same - in the same sort of week here. Do you think people might wake up a little bit on Capitol Hill?

BIELLO: I would hope so. I mean, I'm assuming that they're using these satellite forecasts to kind of plan their own travel, perhaps plan their own evacuation, perhaps batten down the hatches on their summer home. And I would think they would come to appreciate what could be lost. Now, this isn't something that's going to happen tomorrow. This is something that's going to happen over, say, the course of the next decade.

NASA is launching, in October, one of these satellites that would do this polar orbit that's so critical to kind of weather prediction. The problem is in more like 2016, 2018, the satellites that would be the successor to that program and continue - and make sure that we continue our kind of eyes in the sky on that stuff, would be the ones that were lost.

FLATOW: And that - so there's no money for that now?

BIELLO: There's no money for that, and so they're going to have to delay those by up to two years, the launch, in the hopes that some money would come later.

FLATOW: So we'll have a satellite gap?

BIELLO: Exactly. And we already have a satellite gap for certain things. There's - there was a satellite called ICESat. As its name applies, it was keeping tabs on kind of the meltdown in Antarctica. And, unfortunately, it reached the end of its design life and shut down and there was no replacement. Because, like I said, during the Bush administration, we cut the money, we stopped putting these kinds of satellites up. And they've now replaced that with a plane for weather observation...

FLATOW: A plane?

BIELLO: Yes, an airplane, flying through...

FLATOW: I hope it flies fast.

BIELLO: Yeah, flying through polar weather. That's not ideal conditions, as you can imagine.

FLATOW: Yes. I've been there. Yeah.

BIELLO: And the only possible replacement for these weather satellites are weather balloons. So, again, we'd be going back to...

FLATOW: Back to the future?

BIELLO: It's back to 1850 again, yeah. So it's a - you know, there's no good answer for this because we have fallen so far behind on our Earth observations. I think there are about 15 satellite systems, including this weather one. Fourteen out of the 15 are past their design life and will shutdown shortly, and they will not be replaced.

You might be familiar with Landsat, which was given this huge data set over many, many years. The latest iteration of that is reaching the end of its life and may or may not be replaced.

One of the things that is kind of overlooked in this is that it's very difficult to match up data sets, you know, between different satellite programs. So you kind of want that continuity so that you know that you're measuring always the same thing. That helps with things like climate change that are, perhaps, politically sensitive.

FLATOW: Is that one of the reasons they did away with or not - I shouldn't say do away - they're not going to fund a new satellite, that they don't want climate change to be part of this?

BIELLO: Certainly, that has been the first thing to go each and every time this has happened. So, for example, this satellite going up in October used to be planned to have this whole array of sensors that were going to tell us a lot about climate change, those are all gone for budget cuts. It was only going to do the weather.

FLATOW: So the - in the allocation, it says no - it's not suited for our climate.

BIELLO: And so the - yeah. No, it's not that the allocation - it's that we're only going to give you, say, $1 million. But in order to have the climate sensors, we need $2 million. So what do you do?

FLATOW: It's not changing. Why do we need it?

BIELLO: Yeah, that's right. Exactly.

FLATOW: Why we do need it? Could other nations fill - help us fill in the gap in the satellite?

BIELLO: Other nations actually already are helping to fill us - fill in the gap. They're - well, first of all, the military is helping fill in the gap. They have military weather satellites that are doing this polar orbiting, because, obviously, the military has a vested interest in knowing what the weather is going to be.

FLATOW: I think so.

BIELLO: The Europeans also have some, and they help us with some of the rest of the day. But we're the only ones who are doing kind of the late afternoon to evening shift with these weather satellites, and we will just lose that information.

FLATOW: Well, you know, the Chinese own a lot of our debt. Why don't we have them help us fill in the satellite gap?

BIELLO: I know. We owe them a lot of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: They should invest some of that back in those satellites.

BIELLO: Yes. Unfortunately, there is actually a law now that was just passed that NASA is not allowed by law to participate in any joint ventures with China whatsoever, so that won't be happening anytime soon. Yeah, you know, your guess is as good as mine why that should be.

FLATOW: No joint ventures between NASA and China.

BIELLO: Correct. So we're limited to...

FLATOW: Even if I wanted a common tour of the country, I mean, I couldn't bring them over on a joint venture.

BIELLO: Well, not if you're NASA.

FLATOW: If I wanted to take them to Times Square, I couldn't - wow.

BIELLO: Not for NASA.

FLATOW: Not for NASA.

BIELLO: Yeah.

FLATOW: It used to be with the Russians. Now, we're talking about the Chinese.

BIELLO: It's definitely very, very Cold War.

FLATOW: Wow. And so we have this gap coming up that we might be without these satellites for a while. And do you think this could change? As an observer, do you think this focus that we shine some light on this, this might change?

BIELLO: It will be a momentary light based on past experience. Once Irene kind of blows over, people will relatively quickly forget why we spend a relatively small amount of money on satellites, so we could know about Hurricane Irene before it hits us. I mean, we have 36 hours to prepare, right?

FLATOW: Right

BIELLO: That's thanks to satellites.

FLATOW: All right. You've summed that up, David. Thank you very, very much. David Biello is an associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American here in New York. And wishing you a safe weekend.

BIELLO: Same to you.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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