As storm hits, Weather Service sounds alarm on satellite funding

As Hurricane Irene slams into the East Coast, the National Weather Service is sending out a warning to Congress that, unless its funding requests are met, the country is on track for a day when weather-detecting satellites are obsolete.

That day is expected to come sometime in 2016, the expiration date of NASA's NPOESS Preparatory Project, which was designed to bridge the gap between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's old and new satellite systems. The new satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), are designed to build upon the Weather Service's ability to detect the path and precipitation levels of developing storms.

"The current satellites, which were launched several years ago, are aging, and will eventually reach their end. These satellites must be replaced with newer spacecraft, better technology," NOAA spokesman John Leslie said in an e-mail.

The plan for a smooth transition between the two systems was dependent upon NOAA receiving $1.06 billion in the FY11 budget, but last-minute budget negotiations made before a potential government shutdown left the agency with less than half that amount. Should Congress block President Obama's request for $1.07 billion, the time between NPOESS's expiration and the launch of JPSS could span longer.

At a briefing held on Capitol Hill earlier this month prior to the fall hurricane season, Berrien Moore, the director at the National Weather Center, said protecting satellite funding was in the interest of both parties. Fourteen senators, including John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., signed a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee to consider the weather satellite program in the 2012 budget.

In the letter, the senators said, "We are concerned that lack of funding now will bring about unnecessary death and destruction in the future, when there are no accurate multi-day forecasts of severe weather."

The Weather Service has sought to depict the difficulty of relying on 1960s technology to predict present-day extreme weather patterns. The agency's employee union ran such a scenario in an internal study, where it sought to forecast the "Snowmageddon" storm that hit Washington, D.C., in February 2010 without the use of satellite imagery.

Using only data gathered from non-satellite indicators such as buoys and weather balloons, the models underestimated the snowfall by 10 inches. The researchers concluded that without satellite technology, travelers, ground shipments, and the affected area's population "would have been unprepared for paralyzing snow depth."

The Washington snowstorm was ocean-based, like hurricanes. Without satellites in hurricane season, the National Weather Service would have to work with data only from "buoys and ships and islands," according to spokesman Chris Vaccaro.

"Satellites allow us to see clusters coming off Africa and watch them evolve," said Vaccaro. "Forecasters need the ability to point to a zone [in the storm's path] five days out."

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