The Nation’s leading scientists have issued a stark warning: America’s ability to monitor the environment is rapidly diminishing. And if we don’t properly fund our satellite capabilities, the country could lose three quarters of its Earth observation systems by 2020.
That alarming conclusion comes from the National Research Council in a new report assessing the progress of the nation’s Earth observation programs. In short: our leading scientific institutions aren’t actually making much progress.
Rather, a lack of funding and infrastructure will result in “a rapid decline” in our ability to monitor extreme weather and changes to the climate.
The committee found that the number of NASA and NOAA Earth observing instruments in space is likely to decline to as little as 25 percent of the current number by 2020…. The U.S. system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse.
The projected loss of observing capability could have significant adverse consequences for science and society. The loss of observations of key Earth system components and processes will weaken the ability to understand and forecast changes arising from interactions and feedbacks within the Earth system and limit the data and information available to users and decision makers. Consequences are likely to include slowing or even reversal of the steady gains in weather forecast accuracy over many years and degradation of the ability to assess and respond to natural hazards and to measure and understand changes in Earth’s climate and life support systems.
The report is a mid-term update of the NSA’s 2007 decadal survey — a proposed 10-year plan for improving earth sciences programs at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NSA assessment did find that NASA was able to launch new satellites into space and work on international partnerships to make up for shortfalls in money; however, those won’t be enough to meet needed technology improvements.
There are three major factors contributing to this unprecedented decline in Earth monitoring capabilities: budget cuts, a rapidly aging fleet of satellites, and a lack of launch capabilities.
The budgetary issues have been ongoing. According to the NSA progress report, NASA’s Earth science program still hasn’t been funded to the requested $2 billion to meet future objectives.
And as Climate Progress reported last year, Republican lawmakers proposed slashing $1.2 billion from NOAA’s funding levels, cutting into satellite programs. The satellite programs were eventually funded to requested levels, but future funding is uncertain. Senate lawmakers have proposed moving NOAA’s satellite program over to NASA where operational efficiencies could potentially save money.
Officials at these agencies say that more money is needed to replace the fleet of aging satellites that will inevitably fail in the coming years. According to the NSA report, there’s also a severe lack of launch vehicles for Earth satellites that “directly threatens programmatic robustness.”
After all, satellites aren’t much good without a way to launch them.
What’s the solution? Increasing the budget for new satellite infrastructure is the most obvious. But a major boost in funding for these programs is unlikely. So the NSA report recommends establishing new partnerships and “balancing costs with science objectives and priorities” by focusing on a more diverse range of projects rather than a few high-profile missions.
Programmatic efficiency is key. But it still doesn’t fully address what could become a national crisis. As our planet overheats — making extreme weather more intense, deadly and expensive — our ability to monitor the health of planet is collapsing.