AIA Panel Outlines Sequestration’s Impact on Weather Forecasting

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WASHINGTON — The automatic budget cuts known as sequestration are unlikely to have an immediate effect on weather satellites, but could extend the already expected gaps in weather coverage and eventually make it harder to predict future oversized superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, a panel of aerospace executives warned Feb. 25.

The experts said the across-the-board budget cuts, which at press time were expected to take effect March 1, should not include weather satellites.

“It’s not an option. It’s something that’s absolutely necessary,” Cory Springer, director for weather and environment at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Colo., said of the weather satellites. “From a national security perspective, it’s crucial to what we do.”

Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace is a builder of weather satellites.

Springer was part of a panel, “Dangerous Consequences of Sequestration: Weather and Earth Observation Satellite Gaps,” sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) here.

Already, meteorologists and defense officials who use weather data are expecting at least a year-and-a-half gap in coverage after the newest U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, reaches the end of its five-year design life. Suomi launched in late 2011 and its replacement, the Joint Polar Satellite System-1, is not scheduled to launch until 2017, and won’t begin essential data before 2018, according to an AIA press release.

With budgets cuts, or delays to development and launch schedules, that gap could be more than twice as long, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said in February.

“There is some real concern there could be further gaps,” said Eric Webster, vice president of weather systems for ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., a longtime supplier of weather satellite instruments.

Frank Slazer, vice president for space at the AIA, a trade group here, pointed out that sequestration’s effects could multiply with the passage of time.

“Sequestration is not a one-time cut,” he said. Rather, the cuts would be imposed over 10 years, meaning current and future satellite procurements, as well as launches, could be delayed.

Weather satellites provide complex data and their capabilities have steadily grown with each successive generation. Soon, for example, some satellites will be able to determine water surface temperatures to  within a tenth of a degree. These kinds of improvements have translated into far more accurate forecasting capabilities over the years: A 7-day forecast today is as accurate as a 36-hour forecast was 20 years ago, experts said.

Having a full complement of satellites also is important, the panelists said. To illustrate their point, they cited the “snowmageddon” blizzard that dumped 38-56 centimeters of snow on the mid-Atlantic region in 2010. NOAA’s forecasting models using data from multiple satellites predicted five days in advance that 38-45 centimeters of snow would fall. When data from one satellite was taken out of the equation, the prediction changed to 18-25 centimeters, a forecast that would have left tens of thousands of people unprepared for what was to come.

Webster said the United States has more severe weather than any other country in the world.

Additionally, panel members said a funding-related delays leave little room to maneuver if satellites malfunction or run into developmental delays.