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U.S. Climate Satellite Capabilities in Jeopardy

(June2010) The United States is in danger of losing its ability to monitor key climate variables from satellites, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The country’s Earth-observing satellite program has been underfunded for a decade, and the impact of the lack of funds is finally hitting home. The GAO report found that capabilities originally slated for two new Earth-monitoring programs, NPOESS and GOES-R, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense have been cut and adequate plans to replace them do not exist.

Meanwhile, up until six months ago, NASA had 15 functional Earth-sensing satellites. Two of them went down in the past year, and of the remaining 13, 12 are past their design lifetimes. Only seven may be functional by 2016, said Waleed Abdalati, a longtime NASA satellite scientist now teaching at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Taken together, American scientists will soon find themselves without the ability to monitor changes to key Earth systems at a time when such measurements could help determine the paths of the world’s energy and transportation systems.

“Can you imagine if we’ve passed the apex of our Earth-observing capability right at a time when we realize that, ‘Hey, we need to understand what’s going on’?” said Abdalati. “We’re talking about less than half the capability in the coming five years than we’ve had in the previous five years.”

While President Obama’s 2011 budget has gone partway to restoring money for Earth observations, a decade of neglect has left the nation’s agencies — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the US Geological Survey — without the resources they need to do the job.

Despite this, the agencies put together a consortium to come up with a coordinated strategy for Earth observations, the United States Group on Earth Observations. The group readied a report on the state of the nation’s Earth-observation capabilities, but it’s been stuck in review for the past year.

The GAO’s very first recommendation is that this report be released to the public.

“We’ve been told that it proposes continuing observations in 15 to 20 areas. We’ve been told that it doesn’t involve costs and schedules,” said GAO auditor David Powner, lead author of the GAO report. “We think that what’s really important is that we need to get these initial findings and reports. Everyone is telling us that there are good things to build off of in there.”

The National Academy of Sciences also created a survey of satellite capability, which highlighted 15 important missions. The group of scientists called for increasing NASA’s $1.4 billion Earth-science budget by $500 million. Without that cash infusion, American Earth-observation capabilities will decline.

“The extraordinary U.S. foundation of global observations is at great risk,” the report concludes. “Between 2006 and the end of the decade, the number of operating missions will decrease dramatically, and the number of operating sensors and instruments on NASA spacecraft, most of which are well past their nominal lifetimes, will decrease by some 40 percent.”

Obama’s current budget plans have the NASA Earth-science budget reaching $1.65 billion by 2014, but the damage to the base of the country’s capabilities during the Bush years continue to hurt current operations.

“It’s no secret that Earth science did suffer at NASA and perhaps at NOAA under the Bush administration,” Abdalati said. “Now, there are certainly efforts to reclaim that capability.”

But American scientists are now playing from behind trying to replace or patch up the infrastructure that lets us understand what’s going on with our planet. There are structural problems, too. Climate observation missions have very particular requirements, said climate scientist Inez Fung of the University of California at Berkeley.

“If you want to do climate change, you need a uniform set of data so that you can compare changes through time,” Fung said. “It’s a really tough problem.”

That means researchers need continuity in the data they receive from satellites, which requires long-term planning and long-term planning requires consistent funding.

“Long-term planning for the federal government is really difficult,” Powner said. “There are some good folks within NOAA, NASA and DOD who are very concerned about the long-term outlook. But it’s tough to compete, especially when there is a downturn and smaller budgets. It’s always that near-term focus.”

And so the United States may lose its ability to understand what’s happening on and to the planet.

“The agencies will not be able to provide key environmental data that are important for sustaining climate and space weather measurements,” the GAO report concludes.

For Abdalati, the ability to observe Earth from space is fundamental to U.S. interests.

“If we just step back as a society and ask, ‘How important is it that we understand how and why our Earth is changing?’ Regardless of where you fall on man-made influences to climate change, we can all agree that there is a need to figure out what’s going on and what’s coming.”