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States May Lose Ability to Predict, Prepare for Bad Weather

The feds cut funding for a satellite that predicts the location and intensity of tornadoes, hurricanes and snowfall.

Politicians and other skeptics can openly debate global warming all they want. But for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is no question that climate change is real. Not only is it a fact, NOAA says, but the agency has been monitoring it since 1960, when the world’s first meteorological satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral.

From a perch 22,240 miles above the Earth, NOAA’s satellites track fast-breaking storms, monitor fires and volcanic ash, and measure the temperature of the ocean, which, according to NOAA and others, is a key indicator of climate change. But without money to maintain and upgrade NOAA’s current fleet of satellites, state and local officials may be on their own when it comes to planning for global warming’s long-range impacts or when severe weather, like August’s Hurricane Irene, is bearing down on them.

In less than five years, a key satellite that circles the planet on a north-south orbit is expected to exceed its design lifetime, causing a year-and-a-half gap (or possibly longer) in weather satellite coverage. That could severely curtail the accuracy of three- to seven-day weather forecasts. For state and local officials, that means more than just getting caught in the rain without an umbrella. It means forecasters would be less capable of predicting tornadoes, hurricanes and snowfalls, hampering government efforts to properly prepare for major weather events. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has warned that that could result in more property damage and more lives lost.

The satellite in question was a victim of Congress’ last-minute cost-cutting in an effort to reach agreement on raising the debt ceiling in August. The budget cut NOAA’s funding by $140 million and cut money for new satellites by more than $500 million. The cuts affected the schedule for replacing the critical north-south satellite, postponing the replacement’s launch from 2015 to 2017, at the earliest.

To make its case for restoring funding, NOAA’s National Weather Service simulated what forecasts might have predicted during 2010’s “Snowmageddon” snowstorm in the Northeast if the polar-orbiting satellite hadn’t been available. In the simulation, NOAA found that the storm’s predicted path was off by nearly 10 miles and that snowfall would have been underestimated by nearly 50 percent.

But predicting severe weather isn’t the only NOAA service that may be hit by budget reductions. Continued cuts could affect long-range climate forecasts -- those that look beyond two weeks -- which are critical for helping states and localities anticipate and prepare for natural disasters. Firefighters in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas used NOAA’s climate forecasts to prepare for this year’s record wildfires, and emergency managers in Mississippi and Missouri prepared communities for this spring’s onset of flooding months before it began. And in June, the Western Governors’ Association contracted with NOAA to help plan long-range strategies for droughts, floods, fires and broader ecosystem management.

“I think the consequences of not acting are huge,” Lubchenco said in an August lecture, adding, “The nation is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather. With climate change, we are loading the dice in favor of these more severe weather events.”

Even if NOAA is overstating its case, governments should prepare to be, well, less prepared, according to Bob Ryan, a news meteorologist in Washington, D.C. Ryan told The Washington Post, “I don’t think it’s going to have a major day-to-day impact on forecasts.” But, he added, “we’re going to have to, for a while, deal with a bit more uncertainty than we’ve come to [expect].”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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