Satellite gap fuels climate, weather monitoring worry

Gaps in satellite coverage could reduce key climate and space weather information

Gaps in key climate and space weather satellite technology could hurt scientists' ability to predict, monitor and understand long-term climate changes, space weather and other environmental changes across the US and the globe. 

Beginning in about 2015, gaps in satellite coverage are expected to affect the continuity of important climate and space weather measurements, such as our understanding of how weather cycles impact global food production and when radio and GPS satellite communications are likely to be affected by space weather, according to a report from the federal watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office. 

The hottest images of cool outer space 

The satellite technology gap stems from a decision four years ago to pull key instruments from the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) satellite development programs to help keep costs down.  

The next generation of NPPOESS satellites are supposed pump ever more land, ocean and atmospheric data to the meteorological and global climate change communities.   Newer GOES-R satellites are expected to include a number of advanced features such as  improved resolution, faster coverage, better lightning detection and higher data rates.  First launched in 1994, GOES satellites are the backbone of the weather forecasting and environmental services in the US and across the world.  

"We've been engaged in an intense debate over climate change and how it affects the world we live in. If we have the most complete data to track environmental trends, we can better understand climate impacts. Unfortunately, GAO says the important aspects of the observation plans are caught up in red-tape, and we risk losing vital climate information until it's cleared," said Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA), in statement.

A few of the missing instruments include: 

  • NPOESS Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor: Retrieves specific measurements of clouds and aerosols (liquid droplets or solid particles suspended in the atmosphere, such as sea spray, smog, and smoke).
  • NPOESS Conical-Scanning Microwave Imager/Sounder: Collects microwave images and data needed to measure rain rate, ocean surface wind speed and direction, amount of water in the clouds, and soil moisture, as well as temperature and humidity at different atmospheric levels.
  • NPOESS Space Environmental Sensor Suite: Collects data to identify, reduce, and predict the impact of space weather on technological systems, including satellites and radio links.
  • GOES-R Hyperspectral Environmental Suite: Measures atmospheric moisture and temperature profiles to develop weather products such as severe thunderstorm warnings and to monitor coastal regions for ecosystem health, water quality, coastal erosion, and harmful algal blooms. 

The GAO said that in  2008, a policy research center recommended that the US develop an overall plan for an integrated, comprehensive, and sustained earth observation system and the governance structure to support it. And while progress has been made in developing near-term interagency plans,  this initiative is languishing without a firm completion date, and federal efforts to establish and implement a strategy for the long-term provision of satellite data are insufficient, the GAO stated. 

So what could happen? Well the GAO says it wants the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, in collaboration with key Executive Office of the President entities (including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Science and Technology Council), see a number of key reports outlining federal satellite priorities completed. 

"Until a [federal] interagency strategy for earth observation is established, and a clear process for implementing it is in place, federal agencies will continue to procure their immediate priorities on an ad hoc basis, the economic benefits of a coordinated approach to investments in earth observation may be lost, and the continuity of key measurements may be lost. This will hinder our nation's ability to understand long-term climate changes," the GAO stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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