Weather satellites could miss the next Hurricane Sandy

Tim Fernholz
February 16, 2013

Don’t take meteorology for granted. Our ability to predict approaching storm fronts relies on weather satellites orbiting the earth several times a day, and  the US Government Accountability Office is warning that we might lose a few of those orbits. To wit, with emphasis added:

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. Specifically, the models would have under-forecasted the amount of snow by at least 10 inches. Similarly, a European weather organization recently reported that NOAA’s forecasts of Superstorm Sandy’s track could have been hundreds of miles off without polar-orbiting satellites: rather than identifying the New Jersey landfall within 30 miles 4 days before landfall, the models would have shown the storm remaining at sea.

How did we come to this?

Since the 1970′s, America had two sets of polar-orbiting weather satellites, one operated by the government’s weather researchers, and the other by military. In 1994, it was decided that combining them into one operation would save a lot of money. After 16 years of unsuccessful attempts to do that, the government threw up its hands and decided to split the task, giving the weather agency the late afternoon orbit and the military the early morning, with the mid-day orbit shared with the European space agency.

But even these separate plans have been plagued by delays, and the GAO warns that the gap in afternoon coverage by the weather researchers could last from 17 to 53 months. The defense department, meanwhile has decided to launch previously mothballed satellites. which may not have the technology to perform the kinds of observation needed for weather forecasting.

The government is aware of these problems and is working to fix them, but the GAO suggests they’re not working fast enough, offering a raft of suggestions for policymakers. And as a reminder of why keeping an eye on storms is becoming even more important, the GAO notes in the same report another area of high risk for the US government: damages associated with climate change.

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