Are we losing our weather satellite capability?

posted at 10:01 am on October 27, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

Out in our neck of the woods, people are bracing for yet another autumn storm, stocking up on water, batteries and sundry supplies, hitting the ATM and what have you. (And as a note to meteorologists, if you’re calling something a “century flood” and it happens four times in ten years, you may want to recheck your math.) But the only reason we’re able to scramble and put preparations in place is that we’ve had nearly a week’s advance notice of the coming storm, with predictions of Sandy’s track getting more precise by the day. But is this type of data going to be available to us in the future?

One report claims that our NOAA weather satellites are in danger of dying off before replacements can be put on station, leaving us without the tracking information current weather models rely on.

The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews.

The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the entire planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms about five days ahead.

At The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen asks and answers the question, what would happen if we didn’t have this capability anymore?

NOAA recently conducted an experiment to see what the agency would have forecast when 2010′s “Snowmaggedon” struck, had the agency only had buoys and weather balloons. With the lesser data, the models lowballed the snowfall by 10 inches.

In case you still aren’t sure whether this data matters, “polar satellites” Cushman reports, “provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking the course of Hurricane Sandy.”

So the usual bureocratic mismanagement at NOAA has left us with one of our two TIROS-N polar orbiting satellites currently at the end of its predicted lifespan, while the replacement JPSS-1 is essentially still on the drawing board. You can read about the structure of our weather satellite system here. Basically, we have two geosynchronous birds, GOES-13 and GOES-15, which monitor the weather from fixed positions. One of them covers North and South America and the Atlantic basin, while the other watches the Pacific. We also have GOES-12, with only limited capability, which focuses on Central America. But we’ve already launched GOES-14 and it’s parked in orbit, inactive, as the replacement for whichever of 13 or 15 fails first, so we should be OK on that front.

Unfortunately, the real meat of the predictive data comes from the two polar orbiting satellites. (Yes, believe it or not, there are only two.) They circle the Earth from pole to pole, with one crossing the equator in the morning and the other in the afternoon each day. There is no backup in orbit for these yet, and there may not be until 2017 under current plans. Funding for the replacement orbiter is also potentially facing the ax if we go over the fiscal cliff. So there’s one question for us to consider. We’re talking about $182M for the replacement polar orbiting satellites. Is that something we want to give up in the name of fiscal probity? Or would the long term costs of unanticipated storm damage dwarf it?


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We’re talking about $182M for the replacement polar orbiting satellites. Is that something we want to give up in the name of fiscal probity? Or would the long term costs of unanticipated storm damage dwarf it?

We could replace them three times at this rate for the cost of one Solyndra.

Curtiss on October 27, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Would Muslims feel good about their contributions to science if we launched another satellite?

Odysseus on October 27, 2012 at 10:10 AM

People might just miss us when we can’t do these things anymore do to bankruptcy.

forest on October 27, 2012 at 10:12 AM

Less concern about Anthropocentric Global Climate Change and a little more emphasis on your JOB, you know PREDICTING THE D@MN WEATHER.

That’s the problem with government at all levels, it’s lost sight of it’s fundamental mission(s)-roads, police, sanitation, weather- to focus on making us “better” people…Big Gulps, and Obesity and Global Warming.

JFKY on October 27, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Jazz Shaw you’re a liberal. Admit it.

milemarker2020 on October 27, 2012 at 10:15 AM

There is going to have to be some priorities rearranged. For example, It sort of seems silly to me to scrap the weather birds that may save tens of millions of lives, while we are giving $80 Million to help the New Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood buy German submarines with which we all know they will aim at Israel. Sometime we are going to have to consider some of these hard decisions.

MikeA on October 27, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Or as Barack Obama would put it, 0.00455% of one day’s spending.

HopeHeFails on October 27, 2012 at 10:17 AM

Interesting article, Jazz, didn’t realize the gubmint was screwing this up as well.

TXUS on October 27, 2012 at 10:21 AM

One report claims that our NOAA weather satellites are in danger of dying off before replacements can be put on station, leaving us without the tracking information current weather models rely on.

Lets let the Muslims handle this one, so they can feel good about themselves.

BobMbx on October 27, 2012 at 10:25 AM

OT: Well, look at the Associated Press (and liberal university) survey releases one week prior to the election. America, you are RAAAAAAACIST, and some of you are too stupid to realize it.

Do you think this is a coincidence? Hmmm. Maybe someone thinks Barky is going to lose and needs a convenient excuse instead of the real reason: Lack of leadership and failed policies.

http://triblive.com/home/2849814-74/black-percent-racial-attitudes-obama-survey-americans-anti-race-feelings#axzz2ALmuchV6

Philly on October 27, 2012 at 10:25 AM

….after a 2nd Obama term will be lucky if we aren’t using information from satellites put up by the Islamic Space Agency based in Teheran!!

Should they just change the name of NASA to AllahSpace?

PappyD61 on October 27, 2012 at 10:31 AM

This kind of mismanagement is a harbinger of things to come in health care…IF we fail to repeal the research-killing (taxes on medical device providers) and diagnostic-killing (defunding of new technology via payment approval based on cost instead of benefit to the patient) Obamacare.

landlines on October 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Let the Moooooslims launch a few goats.

they lie on October 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Well, just look on the bright side. If there are no satellites to disprove the AGW crowd – win!

OldEnglish on October 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Perhaps if the NOAA spent less money on hotcoldwetdry (climate change) awareness programs and more on their core mission, we wouldn’t have a problem.

William Teach on October 27, 2012 at 10:36 AM

http://conservativebyte.com/2012/10/steven-crowders-parody-of-lena-dunhams-obama-ad-my-first-time/

If you’re a big “my first time” video fan (and who isn’t) you’ll like this one.

Love the hashtag at the end.

PappyD61 on October 27, 2012 at 10:41 AM

Jesus…take the money that the Energy Department (you know, that paragon of efficiency and effectiveness that is run by a Nobel laureate) is planning to give to the next green energy company bound for Chapter 7 (hereinafter known as GECB-7) and buy a couple of new weather satellites.

CalFed on October 27, 2012 at 10:42 AM

We’re talking about $182M for the replacement polar orbiting satellites.

Fun fact: Last year alone we spent eight times that amount, $1,400M, on maintaining the First Family in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Fabozz on October 27, 2012 at 10:51 AM

Obama takes away our man spaced capacity and now our weather systems. Quickly making us an equal or minority among nations.

jukin3 on October 27, 2012 at 11:00 AM

I suspect we’ll be okay. Budgets are lean in every agency, and every agency is vying to be the squeakiest wheel.

And it”s a shame Sandy is about nine days early in aiming at the Northeast.

M240H on October 27, 2012 at 11:01 AM

bureocratic

I have trouble with that one too.

jnelchef on October 27, 2012 at 11:02 AM

We’re talking about $182M for the replacement polar orbiting satellites.

Imagine how many satellites we could have purchase with the money wasted on Solyndra, First Solar, Abound, etc.

William Teach on October 27, 2012 at 11:05 AM

Jesus…take the money that the Energy Department (you know, that paragon of efficiency and effectiveness that is run by a Nobel laureate) is planning to give to the next green energy company bound for Chapter 7 (hereinafter known as GECB-7) and buy a couple of new weather satellites.

CalFed on October 27, 2012 at 10:42 AM

Well if we did that, and close the EPA, we could afford NASA again.

Kjeil on October 27, 2012 at 11:07 AM

This is more than just a weather issue, this is a national security problem. Prior to 1998, the Air Force maintained a separate satellite program to provide weather data to the military. As a cost savings measure the programs were combined.

The military planners rely on the weather data in every imaginable way from normal fleet, ground, and air operations to smart munitions delivery. A gap in weather coverage from the low-flying IROS-N polar orbiting satellites will have significant national security implications.

STL_Vet on October 27, 2012 at 11:11 AM

I was living up in the Bay area in 1983 when they lost a weather satellite. What a mess! And we were hit by an el nino – not a fake storm 2XXX!!1!! – but a real one el nino. There was no way of knowing whether you were going to be hit with buckets of water one day to the next. Very depressing.

Blake on October 27, 2012 at 11:14 AM

Living in the SF Bay area, you could always tell when you were in a city run by liberals because the roads were filled with potholes and the storm drains backed up every time it rained. They were too busy saving the planet and making society better to bother with that “little stuff”, the fundamentals of good civic management that they were put in place to take care of.

Now it looks like the entire country is like that.

Socratease on October 27, 2012 at 11:15 AM

This is the first story on this site that I’ve really ever scratched my head and said…this story is BS. I usually happily lurk around the comments and stay by my lonesome. But I cant stand when people get things about my job wrong. I’ve been a meteorologist in the Air Force for almost 15 years now.

Ok, there may not be replacements for polar orbiters in place but did you read how they work? Here, let me help…go here This information website ran by NOAA describes everything about Geostationary and Polar Orbiting Satellites. And here is another site that shows more info on satellites and even has videos showing their location around the earth. Polar orbiters ensure that there’s not an place on earth that doesnt get satellite coverage but it only shows and image twice a day. When forecasting for most of the world, meteorologists use Geostationary Satellites (GOES)in the short term. (3-5 days) Yes Polar orbiters do help with long range models. But do you rely on that 10 day forecast on the weather channel like its the gospel? I would not compare polar orbiters to the “MEAT” of the information.

The experiment you referenced is bunk to your argument. You asked what if we didnt have polar orbiting capability and you cited a story that did a test to see if we didnt have ANY satellite capability. If a polar orbiter goes down, we still have the other polar orbiter and all of the GOES satellites out there.

While I would like to have many more satellites in the sky. And I get the whole fiscal cliff concern. And I am more than happy to blame this administration for any litany of things, but to suggest that we are going lose our weather satellite capability as in the title of this article is a little overboard. I believe it’s another thing to add to the list and if the polar orbiters confirmed global warming and give more fodder to the “we all need prius’” mantra…there would be 20 of em. We are not going to lose our weather satellite capability any time soon.

cappy718 on October 27, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Good thing I know how to read the clouds.

SailorMark on October 27, 2012 at 11:15 AM

I guess this is what Obama’s idea of “investment in infrastructure” looks like.

Socratease on October 27, 2012 at 11:16 AM

Another punchline to the phrase “You know you’re headed to third-world status when …”

ShainS on October 27, 2012 at 11:17 AM

cappy718 on October 27, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Good point. Polar orbiters don’t stay in the same place, so loosing one means you get fewer snapshots per day, not blind spots.

Socratease on October 27, 2012 at 11:20 AM

I’m not worried.

I’ve got one of those Magic 8 Balls.

trigon on October 27, 2012 at 11:31 AM

I’m sure if we were to review NOAA’s budget – we’d see that there’s plenty that could have been redirected from “climate change” research towards getting replacement satellites back in space.

That aside, when you consider all the money wasted by this Administration on “green” jobs – they could have easily funded the development, (real jobs) construction (real jobs) and deployment (real jobs) of a new generation of weather satellites.

Hill60 on October 27, 2012 at 11:38 AM

Are we losing our weather satellite capability?

Interesting to be living in what may be the collapse of modern civilization as we know it. We have fantastic technologies, but obviously they aren’t fixing all of our problems…though those self-appointed futurists who sell digital technology and their groupies (who couldn’t design and build a chip to save their lives) insist otherwise.

Some of the Romans’ aqueducts are still up and running.

About all they’ll find of our civilization 2000 years from now are all the polyester leisure suits from the ’70s in excavated trash dumps.

Dr. ZhivBlago on October 27, 2012 at 11:38 AM

NOAA weather satellites will be replaced with…

1) Global warming research satellites, and

2) Muslim outreach communication satellites.

petefrt on October 27, 2012 at 11:41 AM

cappy718 on October 27, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Question for you. Is basic forecasting still rooted in statistics or mostly rooted in what the satellites provide. The reason I ask is that when I took my first college level stats class (1975) the prof said that the forecasts were based on what had statistically happened on that day since we began collecting weather data.

chemman on October 27, 2012 at 11:44 AM

How many billions…how many years wasted on climate change…

Smh…

catmman on October 27, 2012 at 11:45 AM

How many people does it really take to predict the weather for the whole US? I bet NOAA has 1000x that number. NOAA is one of those organizations that have morphed into a tangled octopus of gov’t do everything.

aniptofar on October 27, 2012 at 11:46 AM

I’m not worried.

I’ve got one of those Magic 8 Balls.

trigon on October 27, 2012 at 11:31 AM

That’s okay, I have my own mini-weather station. It gives me information for what I need to know that day.

chemman on October 27, 2012 at 11:47 AM

Can’t do without them computer models predicting the many paths of a hurricane, how can we, when they’ve done such a bang up job of predicting global warming. We’d do better with the Farmers Almanac.

Kissmygrits on October 27, 2012 at 11:56 AM

It is OK we are launching NPOESS
http://science.nasa.gov/missions/npoes/
National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System
Phase: Development
Launch Date: March 31, 2014

Big Questions for NPOESS
How is the global earth system changing?
Earth is currently in a period of warming. Over the last century, Earth’s average temperature rose about 1.1°F (0.6°C). In the last two decades, the rate of our world’s warming accelerated and scientists predict that the globe will continue to warm over the course of the 21st century. Is this warming trend a reason for concern? After all, our world has witnessed extreme warm periods before, such as during the time of the dinosaurs. Earth has also seen numerous ice ages on roughly 11,000-year cycles for at least the last million years. So, change is perhaps the only constant in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history.

So there you are, we can use the Satellite we launched to study global warming to kinda partially fill the gap.

notalemon on October 27, 2012 at 12:01 PM

…just put Al Gore up in a weather baloon 24/7.

KOOLAID2 on October 27, 2012 at 12:40 PM

OK, As a NASA contractor I know this sad story all too well. NPOESS was a decade long disaster of mismanagement and just about every kind of screw up you can think of. Started for real in 2000 (and part of Gore’s fiascoes in space) the preparatory stop gap mission (NPP) was originally planned for launch in 2005/6. But after blowing billions of dollars and racking up historic over runs, NPOESS was closed down in 2009/10.

The follow-on program JPSS was initiated for real in the fall of 2010, and was able to get the NPP ground system ready for the NPP satellite launch in fall of 2011.

After picking up the pieces of 11 years of mismanagement and lost time, the best anyone could do is get the first fully operational JPSS-1 up in 2016. And this is still at huge risk as the full damage done in the NPOESS era is uncovered by NASA engineers.

The fact is, this administration did the right thing and shut down the rolling disaster that was NPOESS. But the federal procurement and development process cannot turn on a dime.

And so we are definitely at risk we may lose on-orbit assets before they are replaced.

But there are more than NOAA assets on orbit, and here you are not correct. There are two DMSP satellites (DoD) on-orbit and two more built and ready to go. NPP was just launched and could fill the gap. And there are the European METOP satellites.

We may have to get data from other sources, but we will not be without access to polar orbital weather data.

AJStrata on October 27, 2012 at 1:09 PM

We’re talking about $182M for the replacement polar orbiting satellites. Is that something we want to give up in the name of fiscal probity? Or would the long term costs of unanticipated storm damage dwarf it?

More importantly, how about the costs of human life from the inaccurate forecasts due to the lack of polar orbit weather satellites? People being on the road at the wrong time at the wrong place, flash flooding, trees falling, high winds and a host of other causes that occur when people don’t get the appropriate word to either hunker down or evacuate to safer ground.

P.s. :

if you’re calling something a “century flood” and it happens four times in ten years, you may want to recheck your math

It sounds like you’re somewhere around the Passaic or Ramapo rivers. If so, my condolences.

parke on October 27, 2012 at 1:22 PM

I’m “in the biz” as well and have to echo what AJStrata and others have said. NPOESS was a typical government cluster f, a Christmas tree program that grew and grew until it was huge, couldn’t move, and was mercifully shot. Sadly many DoD and Civil programs, satellite and otherwise, suffer this fate. The DMSP DoD WX Sat program is a perfectly good, proven platform that has been around for decades flying successfully. But not as sexy as a new program (read new dollars, managers, contractors, sales…new opportunities for glory).

Thankfully some are moving toward smaller, simpler programs that can get built [with still-current technology] and flown quickly. Not as sexy, but much more likely to happen without becoming a big, bloated budget-buster.

Hmmm…may be a lesson here.

skoot65 on October 27, 2012 at 1:50 PM

Half a Solyndra per polar orbiting satellite. Too bad we spent the money on Solyndra.

The POES-19 satellite was launched in May 2009. Still plenty of life left. It’s the PM satellite — the AM satellite is the European METOP-A satellite.

Here’s the current status of all the satellites:

http://www.oso.noaa.gov/poesstatus/

unclesmrgol on October 27, 2012 at 2:26 PM

I’m a rocketeer launching AJStrata and skoot65′s birds. The problem is that we are trying to do NEW birds, not just replacements with existing sensors that would be cheaper and require no new development. We need to go for plug-and-play satellite frames that launch on a regular basis every year or two and fly whatever the best available sensors are. This way, when new sensors are delayed like NPOESS we don’t suffer a lack of continuity.

Also, the data from some one-off science satellites are being used to augment the intentional weather birds. It turns out those sensors are excellent as well, especially for major storms. They need to be in the queue for regularly scheduled launches as well.

Also, to clarify, the sats orbit every 90 minutes or so. They are called morning and afternoon orbits because they cross the equator at 10am and 2pm in whatever time zone happens to be below them when they cross. Their orbits are fixed relative to the sun, but Earth rotates beneath them.

321mdl on October 27, 2012 at 2:37 PM

Why not let private companies put up a satellite in space to collect and distribute this information (the government itself being a consumer)?

Daemonocracy on October 27, 2012 at 2:39 PM

Hmmm…may be a lesson here.

skoot65 on October 27, 2012 at 1:50 PM

It is interesting that so many of the sensors on these birds have failed so early. On one of them, only the search-rescue bent pipe capability is still active.

The DMSP satellites were launched in the mid 1980′s.

The military needs an AM satellite, since we don’t tend to launch attacks in the evening, and we are relying on the 2007 era METOP-A from Europe for our morning data. Something has to be done to get that capability, which is also on the chopping block, off of it.

unclesmrgol on October 27, 2012 at 2:39 PM

I see an opportunity for Google to fill a needed niche…..

KMC1 on October 27, 2012 at 3:34 PM

As has been noted above, this started with the NPOESS abortion. Gore et. al. at OMB got the great idea to merge the civilian and military polar programs. It was a disaster, and an expensive one.

The DMSP satellites in orbit now are not the ones launched in the 80′s, these satellites have been replaced repeatedly by more of the same model.

Also, as noted above, the geosynchronous satellites are the ones used to monitor real-time weather. This is a problem, but not a disaster.

NOAA uses the polar satellites for data for the morning models. The most important orbit for DOD is an earlier morning orbit they use for targeting. NOAA has enough working parts of other satellites to make a “virtual” satellite, even if the curren birds fail. We can also obtain data from Eurosat using their METOP satellites.

There were certainly problems at NOAA. And at DOD. And particularly at OMB, for starting this crap. Gore started it, OMB under Bush continue it, OMB under Obama finally shut it down. Lot of blame to go around on this one, and a lot of embarassment.

flydiveski on October 27, 2012 at 4:05 PM

It’s quite simple where the blame lies for this massive weather satellite screwup – OBAMA.

Mr Obama received almost a hundred million dollars in campaign donations in 2008 from the left-wing professional Enviro Industry – Pew Foundation (SUNOCO Oil), Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart), David Packard Foundation (HP Hewlett-Packard), The Ocean Conservancy, EDF Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, etc.

When Mr Obama “won” the election (stole it thru massive voter fraud in at least three states and wimpy McCain didnt force a recount), Mr Obama appointed EDF Environmental Defense Fund’s Vice Chairman Jane Lubechenko as Director of NOAA.

Instead of instead of doing her damn job and running NOAA in a responsible, professional and ETHICAL manner, such as making sure our weather satellite program was well-funded and well-run, Jane Lubechenko instead devoted her time and our taxpayer money to buying things like multi-hundred thousand dollar luxury yachts from Boston Whaler, loading up the NMFS Natl Marine Fisheries Service with Vegan-agenda anti-fishing yes-men so she could foist EDF’s corrupt anti-fishing “Catch-Shares” scam upon the American public.

Lubechenko’s corrupt NMFS bureaucrats (NMFS SE Regl Dir Roy Crabtree instantly comes to mind) and so-called “NMFS scientists” who all come from the Enviro-Industry, are so busy imposing harsh new anti-fishing regulations upon commercial & recreational fishermen that they claim they have no idea that their unneeded, unscientific regulations have devastated fishing communities around the country and are directly responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of direct fishing-related jobs and over a million indirectly-related jobs.

So yes, ALL of the weather satellite blame can be laid at Mr Obama’s doorstep.

CatchAll on October 27, 2012 at 4:50 PM

chemman on October 27, 2012 at 11:44 AM

Yes, we still rely heavily on climatology data and it is always thrown into our computer models and I would say plays a more important part than satellites do. But they are both important.

cappy718 on October 27, 2012 at 4:57 PM

Just in time to allow massive increases in fraud required to keep up the global warming Climate change global weirding Climate Change “science” unchallenged.

astonerii on October 27, 2012 at 6:53 PM

Obama satellites! Keep Obama!! Everybody in the world got a free weather satellite. You on UN Aid, you got money for Hamas, you got subsidies to build battery plants you sign up you got a free weather satellite!!!!

If weather sats are so valuable why not let private companies put ‘em up and sell the information?

DaMav on October 29, 2012 at 12:45 AM

If weather sats are so valuable why not let private companies put ‘em up and sell the information?

DaMav on October 29, 2012 at 12:45 AM

They can, and they do. The government needs their own.

astonerii on October 29, 2012 at 10:01 AM

@astonerii

Why, other than for military purposes (with capabilities well beyond weather) does the government “need” its own weather satellites? I’m open to someone making the case but I haven’t seen it made — Along with a ‘make vs buy data’ if there are truly essential functions.

DaMav on October 29, 2012 at 12:48 PM