OSTP Director Marburger’s misleading testimony on NPOESS space-based climate observations

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In his testimony at a June 7 House Energy and Environment Subcommittee hearing on the development of the NPOESS satellite system, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Marburger played down the extent to which the future of essential climate change observations from space has been jeopardized by the Pentagon’s elimination or downgrading of eight climate sensors originally planned for NPOESS. In addition to an internal NOAA-NASA report to the White House released in June by Climate Science Watch, a presentation to a National Research Council panel on NPOESS by the director of the NOAA Climate Program Office is another source that paints a more truthful picture.

See our previous posts for more information:
“Senate appropriators share our distrust of NOAA and the White House on essential climate satellites”—June 29
“Key points in NASA-NOAA report to White House science office on NPOESS de-scoping”—June 4
“Internal report to White House on implications of NPOESS climate observations crisis”—June 4

At the hearing on “Status Report on the NPOESS Weather Satellite Program” held by the House Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Marburger on several occasions during his oral testimony and in the Q&A appeared to play down the central significance of the de-scoped NPOESS climate sensors, for example by asserting that NPOESS is only a small portion of our Earth observing capabilities; that there are “25 current Earth observing missions;” that it may be misleading to focus on NPOESS; that even with the de-scoping of originally planned climate sensors, NPOESS still retains about half of its climate observations capability; and so forth. 

First, Marburger’s formulation fails to mention how the number of Earth-observing missions will decline in the coming years unless the Bush administration’s sabotage-cutbacks in planned NASA Earth Science is reversed. Second, it fails to address the problem of the “essential climate variables” (as identified by the science community) for which continuity of high-quality measurement is jeopardized by the NPOESS de-scoping, and which are NOT identical with the variables being measured by other planned environmental satellites. 

Take a look at the presentation “Climate Science Implications of NPOESS Nunn-McCurdy Certification Descopes,” by Chet Koblinsky, Director of the NOAA Climate Program Office, to the National Research Council, Panel on Options to Ensure the Climate Record from the NPOESS and GOES-R Spacecraft, on April 23. From this, it would have been more honest of Marburger to say:

Most of the essential climate variable measurements that were originally planned for NPOESS climate sensors, but have been de-manifested, are currently being measured with high-quality sensors aboard NASA research satellite missions. As a result of the Nunn-McCurdy de-scoping of NPOESS, it is projected that, starting in 2010, there will be a large degradation in the ability to measure these essential variables. Starting in 2013 no measurements are currently planned to replace the de-manifested Earth Radiation Budget Sensor, the Altimeter, and the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor. [Koblinsky SLIDE 7]

Of 28 identified Global Essential Climate Variables, 20 are currently being measured with quality generally considered adequate for Climate Data Records.  From 2010 onward it is projected that this number will drop to 16, and by 2015 to 12. It is projected that there will be no viable observations for 6 of these variables starting in 2015. [SLIDE 8]   

The loss of the NPOESS climate-science sensors will have a significant impact on the goals of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
The loss of climate-science sensors will have a significant impact on the goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [SLIDE 9]

Critical work on climate change detection, understanding, prediction, and attribution will be curtailed or not possible.
Critical Climate Data records will cease.
Multiple sensors will not be able to achieve the required accuracy since they require on-orbit co-calibration with predecessor.  [SLIDE 10]

Without the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), discrimination and quantification of natural vs. anthropogenic forcings, and how solar variability affects the Earth system, will be uncertain.
Without the Earth Radiation Budget Sensor (ERBS), causes of climate change and internal feedbacks (e.g., role of clouds) will be uncertain.
Without the RADAR Altimeter (ALT), assessment and prediction of ocean expansion and coastal inundation will be at risk; measurement of ocean storm intensification will be uncertain.
Without the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS), the most effective strategy to mitigate the human contribution to climate change will be uncertain. [SLIDE 12]

Rick Piltz note:
On the problem of the current situation with NPOESS, vis-a-vis essential data on global warming and related variables, I was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: ‘‘We’re going to start being blinded in our ability to observe the planet.”  Asked a question about this quote at the hearing, Marburger called it “grossly misleading.” I disagree—especially given that the administration has yet to decide on and request funds for any real solution to the problem, and in the context of the overall deterioration in the program for Earth observations from space. The administration has had the results of the Nunn-McCurdy DoD-NOAA de-scoping of NPOESS for more than a year now. They did nothing in the president’s FY 2008 budget to rectify the problem by requesting the funds needed to build and fly the de-manifested sensors. Marburger holds out the possibility (with no commitment) that, after considering its options, the administration may request funds for key climate sensors in the FY 2009 budget. Given the time it takes to develop and fly climate sensors, that is a recipe for building a lot of delay into addressing the time-sensitive problem of attempting to maintain continuity of measurement of essential variables.

I think it was Marburger’s testimony—seeking to steer the House Science Committee away from any sense of urgency about NPOESS—that was misleading. I say this in the context of having observed that we have not had straight talk from him about global warming and climate science since day one. As far back as 2002, when questioned about global warming, he would respond like someone who was looking over his shoulder in deference to Bush-Cheney political sensitivities on this issue. I believe he lost credibility on the Hill and with the science community by giving the clear impression that he was more a political representative of Bush-Cheney than an intellectually independent scientist.

I have little confidence that Marburger and the rest of the administration will move expeditiously to develop and support an effective strategy and the necessary funding plus-up to make whole the restoration of essential climate variable measurement currently jeopardized by the NPOESS de-scoping. Congress should take the initiative to appropriate the necessary funds, and specify the necessary mandate, to get this problem dealt with.

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