By Andrew Freedman
14 November 2013
(Climate Central) – Unless it acts quickly, the U.S. faces the likelihood of a "catastrophic" reduction in weather and climate data starting in 2016, resulting in less reliable weather and climate forecasts, a federally-commissioned review panel said on Thursday. The review team, which was comprised of veterans of the weather, space, and aerospace industries, found that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made progress fixing major problems in its satellite programs since the last outside review was completed in 2012, but that the agency has not done enough to mitigate the impacts of a satellite data gap.
To reduce the risk of a data gap from polar-orbiting satellites, which provide the vast majority of data that is fed into computer models used for weather forecasting, the team recommended that NOAA quickly start work on a new “gap-filling” satellite that could be used as a band aid to ensure that crucial weather and climate data keeps flowing.
Polar-orbiting satellites continuously scan the planet from north to south, and instruments aboard these satellites, such as atmospheric sounders, provide data on atmospheric winds and moisture. This data is then fed into computer models that meteorologists use for making weather forecasts. The data from the polar-orbiting satellites is particularly useful for making medium-range predictions out to about seven days in advance.
NOAA has warned that, starting in about 2016, there will be at least a year-long gap between the newest polar orbiting satellite’s design lifetime and the scheduled launch date of its replacement.
That would mean the U.S. would be reliant on just one polar-orbiting satellite, rather than the two that have long been in service. NOAA ran up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and delays and a lack of funding from Congress have put that program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), years behind schedule.
NOAA and international forecasting agencies have warned that such a data gap could significantly erode the agency’s ability to provide advanced notice of significant weather events.
The review team found an “unacceptably high probability of a gap in JPSS data,” said A. Thomas Young, the chairman of the review team and former president of Martin Marietta Corporation.
Young refused to specify the odds of a gap when speaking with reporters on a conference call on Thursday. “The numbers in my mind are not really significant,“ Young said. “You should never be dependent upon a single stream system where you’re one failure away” from losing crucial data of national importance, he said. [more]