Sequester Forces NOAA Satellite Cuts To Save Weather Jobs

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.”

4 Responses to Sequester Forces NOAA Satellite Cuts To Save Weather Jobs

  1. Jim says:

    I don’t think many in congress really mind – most of them don’t like science anyway and if it would only just go away, then so much the better!
    No more worries about climate change, no fretting about biology, geology or astronomy ‘polluting’ the pious minds of the faithful (“Pit of Hell” and all that).
    Apologies if I sound a little cynical :-)

  2. When the USA had the money it squandered it on wars and now the threat of climate change is closer and very real there is no money. At least the rest of the World is taking the situation seriously.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    I’m having a duh, the emperor’s not wearing clothes, kind of moment.

    Weather forecasters look good when they have the satellite data around them, so this decision to unfund satellites could lead to embarrassment at the very least.

    Congress would be quick to criticize the Weather Service if it failed to warn of a tornado or hurricane land-fall, and yet Congress might excuse itself about its failure to fund the satellites. Who, them?

  4. Joan Savage says:

    Brian Norcross (Wunderground) analyzed forecasting for Super-Storm Sandy. The European ECMWF got it right, but the National Weather Service contributed to confusion.

    To the sequesterers, there is nothing unnecessary about…, “reduce uncertainty in measurements of hurricane intensities by 25%, and in those of hurricane tracks by 25–50%”.