by Michael Conathan
As Hurricane Sandy spins its way north across the eastern Great Lakes and into Canada, the northeast coast woke up today to find at least 25 people dead, almost 10 million without power, and monetary damages likely to approach the $20 billion mark. Wall Street is dark, coastal icons like the Atlantic City boardwalk have sustained heavy damage, and homes are flooded from Maine to the Carolinas.
First of all, we should all take a moment to thank the brilliant and tireless forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service. Without their remarkably accurate and timely forecasting capabilities, these numbers could have been so much worse. Unfortunately, if Congressional Republicans and Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan get their way, next time they will be worse.
Our nation’s environmental satellites are aging, and replacements have been slow to come online. When Congress passed last year’s spending bills, cutting more than $150 million from President Obama’s request for the satellite program, the Government Accountability Office predicted that “there will likely be a gap in satellite data lasting 17 to 53 months” between the time the old satellite shuts down and when its replacement can come online.
In his proposed budget, GOP Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan recommended further cuts to environmental programs—14.6 percent across the board. If these cuts were distributed equally, NOAA’s satellite program would lose more than $250 million from its 2012 funded levels.
And according to multiple sources, including the Washington Post, Palm Beach Sentinel, and the Center for American Progress’ Senior Fellow Scott Lilly, the sequestration process looming over Congress’ lame duck session would cost the program an additional $182 million.
So what does this gap in service mean for our prediction capabilities? NOAA ran an analysis in 2011 that found without data from the satellite closest to the end of its shelf life, the accuracy of its forecasts for major storms like blizzards and hurricanes would decrease by approximately 50 percent. This means more uncertainty about the storm’s intensity and direction.
Unless we somehow decide that weather-monitoring satellites are no longer necessary, and that we should just forgo building them all together, we will have to replace them. And if we wait, they only get more expensive. Three to five times more expensive according to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco who a year ago called this decision “a disaster in the making,” “an expression of dysfunction in our system,” and “insanity.”
In congressional Republicans’ mindless crusade against all government spending, they have forgotten that there are some things the government actually does well and the private sector cannot provide. A few years ago, one GOP congressman famously asked then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, “why are we building meteorological satellites when we have The Weather Channel?” Where do you suppose he thought the Weather Channel gets its data? That’s right, kids! NOAA’s meteorological satellites!
The GOP’s push for budget austerity is as blunt, broad, and mindless as a hurricane bulling its way forward without regard for the health, value, or well-being of anything in its path. If the party continues down this path of insanity, it may well also end up being just as destructive.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress