2016 is looming as the year during which a gap in weather satellites could leave the nation without some of the severe storm data that’s vital to early warnings. After 2011’s record-breaking severe weather — with 12 disasters that cost more than $1 billion — it seems counterintuitive that budget reductions may create a period of 12 to 18 months during which severe warnings days in advance of a storm likely won’t be available, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predictions.
Vital to weather forecasting, two polar-orbiting satellites collect data above the Earth’s poles 14 times per day and feed data into a computer model. According to NOAA, the satellites’ orbits “provide two complete views of weather around the world,” which allow meteorologists to “develop models to predict the weather out to five to 10 days.” In addition, polar-orbiting weather satellites provide about 90 percent of the data used in National Weather Service forecast models.
The two satellites provide continuity of information, with one providing data during the mid-morning orbit and the other in the early afternoon. The first is run by the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, which partners with NOAA and benefits from the information collected in the afternoon orbit. The second satellite is owned by the United States — and is where the information gap issue lies.
Because of a funding reduction, Ajay Mehta, deputy director for NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), said the launch of the new satellite, called JPSS-1, was delayed. JPSS-1 will replace a NASA satellite that was launched on Oct. 28, 2011. NASA’s satellite — called the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, or NPP for short — will provide operational data for four or five years.
“That is an important thing for our continuity because [it’s] the last of the old generation of satellites we had launched in 2009,” Mehta said. “That one is only going to last for another couple of years.”
While NASA’s satellite is providing continuity of information, its life cycle is expected to end in 2016, and Mehta estimated that JPSS-1 won’t be fully operational until 2017. The time between NPP and JPSS-1 is when the information gap is expected.
“For the polar orbit, we have had operational satellites since 1979, so this mission is critical to provide continuity of NOAA operational data sets,” said Mitch Goldberg, JPSS program scientist. “NOAA has products and services, such as weather forecasting, and they depend on this constant flow of data from satellites going to weather prediction models.”
Last year was rife with concerns over how much funding NOAA’s satellite program would receive and what that would mean for the future of severe weather forecasting in the United States. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco had many poignant sound bites in 2011, including that budget cuts to the satellite would be a “disaster in the making;” that in a few years, the agency may not be able to do the severe storm warnings that people have come to expect; and that it could cost three to five times more to rebuild the project than to keep funds flowing toward it.
President Barack Obama requested a little more than $1 billion for 2011 and beyond for the polar-orbiting satellite program. On Nov. 18, 2011, legislation was enacted that gave JPSS $924 million for 2012. “While we’re happy with the level of funding in this fiscal environment, it was still almost $150 [million] less than the president’s request — therefore it will not eliminate the possibility of a gap,” Mehta said via email.
When thinking about impacts that the information gap could have on emergency management, a question arises: What would be different?
To help assess how beneficial the information from polar-orbiting satellites is to weather forecasting, the National Weather Service reran forecasts for Snowmageddon, the blizzard that hit the East Coast in February 2010, without the satellites’ data. “When they took the data out, they ended up mis-forecasting it by almost 50 percent,” Mehta said. With the polar-orbiting data, a 20-inch snowfall was predicted, and without it the forecast was 10 inches of snow. In reality during the week of storms, 28.6 inches of snow fell in Washington, D.C. — the most since 1922, according to NOAA.
“You can imagine the difference for decision-makers,” said Goldberg. “If someone tells you there is going to be a seven-inch snowstorm or two-foot snowstorm, you’re going to make different decisions based on those two scenarios.”
The last year also has seen an increase in severe weather. From the tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri to Hurricane Irene impacting the East Coast, tremendous amounts of devastation have occurred across the U.S., the forecasts for which have been “very good,” Goldberg said. Without data from the polar-orbiting satellites, however, he said there would be a major degradation of weather forecast performance.
Another issue is this information can’t be obtained from other sources. Although the United States partners with Europe’s satellite program, data from both orbits is needed, said Mehta. He added that NOAA is exploring all options and has looked into privately owned satellites — but that would not help prevent the predicted information gap.
“Our estimates show that for somebody to build a new instrument and launch it, it’s going to take much longer,” he said, “because we’ve already started building the instruments and spacecraft for JPSS-1.”
And the lack of additional information sources also applies to state and local emergency management agencies. Larry Gispert, past president of the International Association of Emergency Managers and former emergency management director of Hillsborough County, Fla., said everyone — the private and public sectors — relies on NOAA and the National Weather Service for severe weather information. He said some companies will process that data and put their own spin on it — “but they all get that data from the federal government.”
What it comes down to is that emergency managers need severe weather data — and it must be as accurate as possible and provide enough time for preparing and evacuating people if needed. The island of Key West, Fla., is the year-round home to about 25,000 people, but sees more than 1 million visitors annually. Craig Marston, Key West’s division chief of emergency management and training, said evacuation procedures begin 96 to 72 hours before a storm is predicted to make landfall and having good, up-to-date information is key.
“We’re pretty far out there, so what really concerns us is that NOAA is able to maintain its air flights,” he said.
Marston works closely with the National Hurricane Center and the local Weather Forecast Office to know what the weather is doing and what to expect. In the event that severe weather data isn’t available for more than three days in advance, Key West’s ability to evacuate health-care patients and other populations could be jeopardized — 72 hours is the minimum amount of time needed to fly patients from the area. “We rely heavily on the Weather Service for its information,” Marston said.
Hillsborough County’s Gispert said the large numbers of people who live in coastal areas make storm information necessary to help with evacuations. “Emergency management people have a tough enough job without getting accurate data and some kind of advanced warning of potential threats,” he said.
Like most issues, it all comes down to money, and Gispert said public safety is one of government’s ultimate responsibilities. “If my congressman would ask me, and I often tell them, if it was a choice between funding one more bomb to Afghanistan or putting up a weather satellite, guess which one I am going to vote for.”