Even as her agency prepares for the launch of a new environmental monitoring satellite next month, the deputy administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cast a wary eye to the future during a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) in Washington DC on Friday.
As it stands, NOAA has one workhorse polar orbiting satellite that will hit its design life next year (as well as access to data from defence and European satellites). NASA is preparing to send up a new satellite next month as part of a joint mission that is intended to keep the data flowing through 2016, but, thanks to budgetary constraints, it’s not clear whether NOAA will be ready to launch the first satellite in the Joint Polar Satellite System (pictured) by that time.
In her comments at the PCAST meeting, Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said the environmental monitoring programme provides “critical environmental intelligence.” She underscored the value of the polar-orbiting satellites, which provide 93% of the data that go into numerical models used to forecast weather and predict storms. The agency has conducted tests using real world data and found that its ability to predict storm tracks and issue early warnings falls sharply if data from its existing polar satellite are removed. In effect, she says, the agency would only be able to issue two- or three-day forecasts with the level of confidence currently placed in five-to-seven day forecasts if it lost access to this stream of data.
NOAA officials made similar arguments during the fiscal 2011 appropriations debate, but thefinal budget deal nonetheless flat-lined NOAA’s request for the satellite programme, thus pushing back work on the new satellite. Sullivan says the agency has always struggled to maintain a viable environmental monitoring system in the face of limited funding, but the situation could get even worse in the years to come. “This is a system of systems,” Sullivan said. “Sustaining it through these difficult times will certainly be a challenge for us all.”