Without accurate satellite data, we would never have known superstorm Sandy would be as bad as it was. In fact, New York probably would have underprepared, leading to a much greater loss of life and property.
Much of the country is debating what federally mandated budget cuts (also known as sequestration) could do to national security. Although it doesn't often come up, protection from the elements is also a form of national security, and if the country's weather-forecasting program finds itself on the chopping block, the United States would lose some of its ability to predict the next Snowmageddon, the next Hurricane Irene, or the next superstorm Sandy.
Three days out from Sandy, meteorologists thought the system was headed to sea—until it made a westward hook toward New York. Thanks to the early warning, residents evacuated low-lying areas and amassed supplies to wait everything out. Without the weather satellites' crucial services, the storm could have ended much more tragically.
The same was true in 2010, when an epic winter storm dumped nearly 40 inches of snow on parts of the mid-Atlantic. What would have happened if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Polar Operational Environmental Satellite hadn't been there? Well, because POES is the only instrument that looks at the East Coast from a certain vital angle in the early afternoon every day, weather forecasters would've predicted about a foot of snow less than what we really got. In places like Elkridge, Md.—one of the areas hardest hit by the storm and located near Washington's BWI airport—preparing for a 30-inch snowfall when in fact 10 inches more were on the way would have been costly, if not dangerous.
"People might not realize it, but we have more severe weather than any other nation in the world, " said Eric Webster, director of weather systems at Exelis Geospatial Systems, which has built virtually all of the military's GPS satellites since the 1970s. "Weather satellites are crucial for the sheer breadth and abundance and consistency of coverage. In the global weather forecast, 96 percent of the data comes from satellites."
Nobody dares to venture how much money sequestration could strike from NOAA's $5 billion budget, nearly a quarter of which is spent on space satellites and the data they produce. But even a small setback could lead to gaps in satellite coverage that would leave the country unprepared for extreme weather—events that are only going to become more common as climate change progresses.
There's currently a 1.5-year gap in coverage that's already expected between when NOAA's latest satellite, Suomi-NPP, exhausts itself in 2017 and when the next satellite, JPSS-1, is supposed to replace it. And that's a low estimate: a Government Accountability Office report shows the gap could last up to three times as long, even without factoring in the looming spending cuts. With sequestration, according to Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, new geostationary weather satellites—the ones that orbit the earth over a fixed position rather than moving from pole to pole—could see launch delays of two to three years.
If sequestration hits, there's very little chance the private sector could step in to save the day. Governments are pretty much the only ones in the business of gathering weather data. Some satellite imagery is commercially available, but there's only one provider weather analysts trust. And, besides, predicting the weather is a lot more complicated than looking at two-dimensional pictures. Since weather as we know it is actually created in the atmosphere, not on the ground, meterologists need satellites to tell them things about cloud and wind movements, temperature, moisture, and all manner of other metrics that get turned into 3-D and statistical models.
Many of these measures, by the way, also get used in longer-term climate studies. With sequestration looming, most in the industry are worried primarily about being able to predict the weather. But, Webster added, "depending on how much an overall budget cut could be in the out-years, it could affect the ability to do the next generation of climate satellite instruments." And that could mean an effect on how we perceive and understand global warming.
The fact that some delays have already been built into the planning schedule suggests a short lapse in coverage is actually not that big a deal. But the longer we go without accurate predictions, the more dangerous it gets.