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.”
Just think about it. Under the guise of getting our fiscal house in order in the short term, our leaders in Washington would increase the long-term cost and delay (perhaps beyond two years) the introduction of badly needed satellite systems. This would happen with the knowledge that in 2011, economic damages throughout America from accurately forecasted severe storms amounted to an estimated $46.5 billion. Imagine the damages we will suffer in the future if weather forecasting capabilities are degraded and communities aren't given timely and accurate warnings of major storms.
We can't afford to let severe budget cuts take weather forecasting back to the dark ages. NOAA satellites save lives and money at a time when our weather is becoming more and more volatile. In Oklahoma, which was hit by eight major winter storms and 39 severe weather incidents in the past decade, this is particularly true. Congress and the president should strive to avoid these and $1.2 trillion in other scheduled draconian budget cuts to defense and nondefense programs, and work to ensure that citizens and communities continue to receive the accurate weather forecasts they've come to count on.
Blakey is president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.