Are we losing our weather satellite capability?

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?