Proposed sequestration cuts would be a threat to important weather forecasting

BY MARION C. BLAKEY Published: August 3, 2012
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Living in “tornado alley,” Oklahomans are used to severe weather, but the 10-year cost of severe storms — some $6 billion in property damages — is still mind boggling.

In 2012, our nation is midway into a summer that's already spawned devastating storms, floods, wildfires and heat waves. It's hard to imagine a less opportune time to cut funding for national weather forecasting.

Unfortunately, that's what will happen unless Congress works with the White House to repeal mandatory budget cuts scheduled to hit federal programs in 2013. These “sequestration” cuts may lead to a $182 million reduction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellite program — putting at risk the very sentinels that provide lifesaving severe weather warnings.

With this devastating cut, development of a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites will be delayed, risking to extend a projected 17-month gap in critical polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage beginning in 2017. Yet National Weather Service forecasts get 85 percent of their data from polar-orbiting NOAA weather satellites. Without this data, weather predictions may wildly miss the mark.

Indeed, last year NOAA ran models to see how accurate the forecast of the 2010 “snowmaggedon” blizzards would be without data from polar-orbiting satellites. The models misjudged the storm track by 200 to 300 miles and underestimated snowfall accumulations by at least 10 inches. Without these satellites, NOAA says hurricane tracking would suffer from the same degree of inaccuracy — a thought incomprehensible to coastal communities, where often the only defense is adequate time to prepare.

Referring to two major weather satellite systems in development — the Joint Polar Satellite System and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R Series (GOES R) — former astronaut and NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan recently warned Congress, “These programs require stable and sufficient budgets in order to minimize disruptions that may lead to launch delays and cost increases.”

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