The continuing threat to continuity of space-based global climate data


Suomi-NPP satellite launched October 2011. Photo: NASA

“The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews,” the New York Times reported on October 26.  “The Joint Polar Satellite System also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk.”  We have been covering the slow-moving crisis of the degradation of the U.S. space-based climate observing capability since 2007, when we released an internal report to the White House and testified on the problem at a Senate hearing.  The Obama Administration has sought, so far without sufficient success, to reverse a decline that accelerated under the Bush Administration and dates back to key decisions made by the Clinton Administration.

From the New York Times (“U.S. Satellite Plans Falter, Imperiling Data on Storms”):

The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts view as almost certain within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy

Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launch of the next replacement, known as J.P.S.S.-1, has slipped to 2017, probably too late to avoid a coverage gap of at least a year.

Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite program’s managers are just beginning to think through alternatives when the gap occurs, but these are unlikely to avoid it….

The under secretary of commerce responsible for NOAA, Jane Lubchenco … wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix “this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”

“It is a long, sad history,” said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council. The report projected a dismal decline in what has been a crown jewel of modern earth and atmospheric science.

Earlier CSW post:  JPSS satellite delays risk loss of global climate data continuity (July 10,2012)  A report on a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee oversight hearing, with background and discussion of the continuing threat to the continuity of space-based global climate data.  Excerpt:

The scheduled JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 launches have been pushed back to March 2017 and December 2022, respectively.  This is many years later than the originally intended NPOESS launches. When the transition to JPSS was announced in 2010, NOAA anticipated launching these satellites in 2015 and 2018. These lengthy and repeated delays now seriously threaten the continuity of global climate data collection.

With the Suomi-NPP satellite having an expected life of only five years – and a possibility it will not last the full five years – and JPSS-1 requiring a period of on-orbit checkout once launched, the GAO projects (hearing testimony, pp. 10-11) a gap in climate data of seventeen months, and potentially much longer if Suomi-NPP functions for less than five years and/or JPSS-1 experiences any delay in launching and with all sensors calibrated and becoming fully operational.

NOAA reportedly anticipates a climate data gap of 18-24 months….

As with the earlier threat of rollbacks to climate monitoring sensors, dating back to the NPOESS debacle, restoring all planned climate sensor programs ranks below NOAA’s two main goals for JPSS.  In the event of cost overruns, NOAA apparently assigns a lower priority to keeping several of the climate remote-sensing instruments in the JPSS system than to staying within the overall budget.

David Powner, representing the GAO, testified: “The loss of certain censors could cause a break in the over 30-year history of satellite data and would hinder the efforts of climatologists and meteorologists focusing on understanding change in the earth’s ozone coverage and radiation budget.”…

The future of the space-based global climate observing system should be at the forefront of the federal government’s considerations – along with weather forecasting, which of course is absolutely essential – and more important than staying within a strict cost cap running out to 2028.  But neither the Administration nor Congress appears to consider the danger to America’s climate sensors and long-term climate monitoring capability as a highest-priority concern.

[I]f climate-quality-data sensors fall victim to budget cuts, what will be the consequences for climate science and understanding of change in the Earth System? And in the longer term, how might this affect society?

In testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in 2007, we said:  “The [Bush] Administration has cut the climate change research budget to its lowest level since 1992 and is presiding over what appears to be a growing crisis in the global climate observing system, thus undermining a critical national intelligence-gathering process.” We called on Congress to hold Bush Administration officials accountable for allowing essential climate sensors to be dropped by the Defense Department from the next-generation environmental satellite system, even as NASA was foregoing development of a next generation of its Earth Observing System satellites.

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

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