Future weather forecasts could face "gap" in accuracy

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Washington, DC, February 12, 2015 | comments

Content originally published by the Denver Post on February 12, 2015

It's a situation that seems almost unthinkable in the modern era.

But thanks to years of government mismanagement, U.S. weather forecasts soon could see a dip in accuracy — leaving the country more vulnerable to hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

The reason lies with the nation's fleet of aging weather satellites, particularly one probe now in a polar orbit.

That satellite, known as S-NPP, was launched in 2011 and circles Earth about 14 times a day. It was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., a Colorado company.

With each lap, S-NPP gathers raw data on the planet's condition. The information is converted into measurements on temperature, humidity and other factors that help meteorologists predict whether rain will cancel Little League on Saturday.

But as satellites go, S-NPP is getting old and should reach the end of its expected five-year life in October 2016, according to watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.

Worse, a replacement satellite is not expected to launch until March 2017 at the earliest — a loss that could leave the U.S. without a critical eye in the sky for several months, if not longer.

Although S-NPP is not the only polar satellite that meteorologists use for forecasts, it's the primary one assigned to the so-called " afternoon orbit," meaning it "passes over the U.S. during full daylight hours," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, its parent agency.

If S-NPP were to go down without a replacement, the reliability of U.S. weather forecasts would suffer, warned GAO investigators in a December report.

"Satellite data gaps in the morning or afternoon polar orbits would lead to less accurate and timely weather forecasting," they wrote.

"For example, the National Weather Service performed case studies to demonstrate how its forecasts would have been affected if there were no polar satellite data in the afternoon orbit and noted that its forecasts for the Snowmaggedon' winter storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic coast in February 2010 would have predicted a less intense storm further east, with about half of the precipitation at 3, 4, and 5 days before the event," the GAO investigators added.

The looming "gap" in satellite coverage has attracted enough attention that members of the U.S. House science committee plan to meet Thursday to examine the issue.

Among the lawmakers expected to attend is U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden. He said the U.S. "can't afford" a gap and urged NOAA and the administration to make weather satellites a priority.

"We need to accelerate the construction and launch of these satellites," he said.

Right now, NOAA predicts any gap in coverage would last just a few months.

But the GAO, which acts as Congress' investigative arm, is not completely convinced.

The agency has raised concerns about potential setbacks — from unseen delays in building the new satellite to the possibility of "space debris" destroying S-NPP in the interim.

"Depending on different assumptions, a gap could span from 11 months to more than 3 years," noted the authors of the GAO report.

At the same time, lawmakers and the GAO were skeptical that NOAA has a solid backup plan to deal with a long-term gap.

One suggestion by the GAO is that NOAA must keep a close watch on S-NPP to make sure it survives as long as possible.

A NOAA spokesman, in response to written questions, noted the agency also is using "additional aircraft data" in its models and that it is working to improve the way it uses the data it already gets.

Another idea is to quickly throw together an interim mission. But that would cost time and money, two items in short supply on Capitol Hill.

One reason is the mismanaged history of the U.S. weather satellite program.

Two decades ago, Washington policymakers sought to combine NOAA's weather satellite program with one run by the U.S. military. The idea was to save money, but the plan backfired.

In 2002, the program was expected to cost $7 billion with launches later that decade.

By the time it was canceled in 2010, however, the price tag had more than doubled to $15 billion and the launches were facing delays of more than five years. The Obama administration since has told NOAA and the Pentagon to pursue their plans separately.

In prepared remarks for Thursday's hearing, Stephen Volz, a top NOAA official, said the new effort is on track and that the upcoming 2017 launch is one of just several efforts by NOAA to shore up its forecasting prowess.

"We are confident that ... we can meet our development milestones in order to deliver the essential data that these satellites provide to the nation's weather enterprise," he said.

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