What If We Didn't Know Hurricane Sandy Was Coming?

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The New York Times reports that dying satellites threaten our ability to forecast storms in the years ahead.

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NASA

It's no exaggeration that our ability to forecast storms saves lives and dollars every year. But what if we were no longer able to make those forecasts?

Of course, it's not that we would lose the knowledge of how to do so. The problem is that we might lose the data that feeds our models.

The New York Times reports that our weather-monitoring satellites -- which fly from pole to pole, crossing the critical zone around the Equator in the early afternoon -- are dying, and mismanagement and underfunding (generally resulting from Bush-era decisions or congressional Republican budgets) mean that replacement ones are behind schedule. ($182 million dollars for the weather satellites will disappear should sequestration -- automatic cuts looming in 2013 -- come to pass.) The result may be "a year or more" without the data these satellites provide. John H. Cushman Jr. reports:

Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launching of the next replacement, known as JPSS-1, has slipped until early 2017, probably too late to avoid a gap of at least a year.

Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite's managers are just beginning to think through their alternatives when the gap arrives, but these are unlikely to avoid it.

The mismanagement of the $13 billion program, which goes back a decade, was recently described as a "national embarrassment" by a top official of the Commerce Department.

This summer, three independent reviews -- by the Commerce inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and a blue-ribbon team of outside experts -- each questioned the government's cost estimates for the program, criticized the program's managers for not pinning down the designs and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, along with NASA.

The newest NOAA satellite, the Suomi NPP, launched last October but it is not known whether it will last until JPSS-1 is ready to go -- many of its instruments are new and it is therefore difficult to predict their survival in orbit. If Suomi sputters out before JPSS-1, as government officials believe is likely, the gap would come in afternoon data collection, a time period critical because it covers the peak of midday heat, data necessary for our atmospheric models. This chart from the NOAA NESDIS Independent Review Team shows this gap below.

gap.jpg

Acronyms represent the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and MetOp, Europe's polar-orbiting weather satellites, with whom the U.S. partners for weather-data collection. (NOAA NESDIS Independent Review Team Report)

NOAA recently conducted an experiment to see what the agency would have forecast when 2010's "Snowmaggedon" struck, had the agency only had buoys and weather balloons. With the lesser data, the models lowballed the snowfall by 10 inches.

In case you still aren't sure whether this data matters, "polar satellites" Cushman reports, "provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking the course of Hurricane Sandy."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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