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Don Paul: Why cuts to NOAA's satellite budgets could hurt us all

The satellite budgets of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are in peril — and that could affect public safety.

NOAA — the parent agency for the National Weather Service and its satellite service — is in line for a large slashing, under budget cuts recently proposed by the Trump administration. If the proposal goes through Congress, NOAA could see a 17 percent cut, and its satellite branch would take a 22 percent hit.

No doubt many government agencies and programs scheduled for significant cuts could make compelling arguments against those cuts. Have no fear: I have no intention of going through a line-item NOAA budget examination. But I will highlight how the satellite services cut could negatively affect all of us.

According to some outside academic experts, some of NOAA’s problems are of their own making. There have been instances of mismanagement in both development of better global computer modeling, and in development of the polar orbiting satellites program.

What do polar satellites offer?

The polar orbiters generally don’t produce the imagery we show you on TV. Their orbits change with each of 14 passes over the poles a day, and they are at a much lower altitude, covering many different regions with each pass. Their imagery resolution is very detailed because of advanced sensors and their low-orbit altitude. But the number of types of datasets goes far beyond what we think of as “imagery” and includes soil moisture, atmospheric humidity, land and topography features.

A satellite's image of Lake Erie. (NOAA CoastWatch Great Lakes Node)

That’s quite different than our geostationary satellites, which orbit at 22,000 miles, taking hemispheric and zoomed-in sector imagery, always facing the same part of the globe. Because some of our polar orbiters are now aging and getting closer to the ends of their life cycles, the slashes in the budget could leave serious gaps in polar coverage.

We know that polar satellites’ data are vital to atmospheric models’ accuracy. One of the most famous "calls" ever made by the European model was one that was days ahead of the U.S. GFS model on predicting the devastating left turn to be taken by Hurricane Sandy. It enabled the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center to give more advance warning to emergency managers in the middle Atlantic states. The European Center, for research purposes, ran those models from that time period again minus the polar satellite data input. Take a look at the results.

We will need to replace these aging polar satellites. Lives depend on it, as well as protection of property and infrastructure. There may be alternatives down the road as these satellites reach their replacement launch dates, but in the interim, gaps that develop will reduce forecast and warning reliability and timeliness.

NOAA’s current budget is $5.8 billion of the $1.2 trillion discretionary budget. Under the proposed budget cuts, the 22 percent cut in the satellite branch would see funding reduced by $513 million.

Satellite input into computer weather models accounts for about 80 percent of all data ingested to run the models. That startling statistic supplies a perspective to the irreplaceable contributions weather satellites make to modern forecasting.

Satellites are the reason no part of the globe can be struck by a hurricane with virtually no warning, as was often the case in such storms as the disastrous 1938 Long Island and New England hurricane, which killed hundreds as it raced north.

They afford us the data to give much more advance warning of the potential for major storm systems, severe weather outbreaks and even weather pattern changes many days in advance. The global models that predict such events would be vastly inferior without an updated satellite infrastructure. Europe, Japan, China and many other industrialized nations also have their satellites covering the other parts of the globe. For the most part, the only global coverage gap is a small sliver of the Indian Ocean.

In the immediate future, there is great news on the recently launched GOES-R, now called GOES-16, our newest and superior geostationary satellite. It is still in a testing stage, but the data it is sending back has met or exceeded all expectations and is nothing less than spectacular. Its lightning-detection capabilities exceed the capacity of modern Doppler radars data products (which have far larger gaps in coverage of the globe than does satellite imagery) to determine which thunderstorms are intensifying and becoming more dangerous.

There is now a large body of research linking fast increases in lightning flash rates to tornado formation, damaging hail and damaging straightline winds. This is in addition to ground-based lightning detection and its contributions. But ground-based lightning detection shows only cloud-to-ground strikes, not cloud-to-cloud strikes. Cloud-to-cloud lightning is the precursor of increasing lightning hazards on the ground and is more of a hazard to aviation.

This video will fill you in on the huge advance the lightning detection in the GOES-R represents for science and society in the western hemisphere.

So, the news is not all bad on the weather satellite front. But with other vital weather satellites nearing the end of their useful lives, such a large cut in the satellite branch of NOAA carries with it significant risks for all of us. (Proposed cutbacks in climate research are a subject for another column.)

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