There has been mounting concern over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s mandatory furloughs of National Weather Service employees amidst increasingly severe weather. As a result, NOAA has reportedly submitted a plan to Congress that would restore the jobs at the expense of its weather satellites.
This ‘pay one debt to incur another’ plan is the result of budget cuts mandated by sequestration, which severely threaten the agency’s ability to carry out its key mission by slashing $271 million from its 2013 budget, including a $50 million cut in its geostationary weather satellite program.
After the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma and Missouri and in preparation for what’s predicted to be an extremely active hurricane season, NOAA’s acting administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan announced last week that the agency was cancelling its mandatory furloughs, but provided no details on how it would be offset.
On Sunday evening, Politico reported that the agency has proposed draining the funds from the promising COSMIC-2 satellite program in order to save weather jobs on the ground.
A joint initiative with Taiwan, the COSMIC program began with the launch of six satellites in 2006. As the initial fleet nears the end of its life, COSMIC-2 would launch 12 new satellites into orbit with the capacity to collect and transmit an enormous amount of data that enhance weather forecasts and climate models. According to the program’s website, more than 2373 researchers from 71 countries are registered users of COSMIC data, which are freely available to users in all countries, and 90% of COSMIC soundings are available within three hours of collection.
Whereas most satellites point down toward Earth, COSMIC satellites are unique in that they look across the horizon and monitor radio signals from the dozens of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. Since so many soundings are collected continually around the globe — including atmospheric density, pressure, moisture and temperature data from space — COSMIC provides a three-dimensional picture of the diurnal cycle in all types of weather.
This is particularly helpful in collecting data above the oceans, polar regions, and other hard-to-sample areas. According to Nature, COSMIC team members hoped to launch the first six COSMIC-2 satellites in 2016 “to orbit a narrow section of the tropics, gathering data that would reduce uncertainty in measurements of hurricane intensities by 25%, and in those of hurricane tracks by 25–50%”.
As climate change increases the severity of extreme weather across the country, sequester was already jeopardizing NOAA’s ability to provide accurate and advance forecasting of extreme weather events by further delaying the launch of replacements for the agency’s aging geostationary satellites.
While NOAA has yet to make any statement on its plan to avoid furloughs, cutting the COSMIC-2 program to save forecasting jobs does not mean forecasting quality will stay the same — instead, sequester cuts just create more problems elsewhere by undermining the ability to predict and prepare for severe weather in the future.
As Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress explained, “This is not cutting spending to increase efficiency, it’s cutting spending that will decrease capabilities.”