Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)

WASHINGTON — A group of 14 U.S. senators — many from states hard hit by a rash of tornadoes and ongoing flooding — are warning of potentially grave consequences if Congress continues to short change an overdue effort to replace the nation’s polar-orbiting weather satellites.

In a June 17 letter to Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Appropriations Committee, 13 Democrats and one Republican — Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) — warn that a projected looming gap in weather satellite coverage will worsen without more support for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

“As you know, a harmful loss of satellite coverage is already slated to occur in coming years, and we are deeply concerned that without adequate funding to swiftly implement JPSS, American lives, property, and prosperity will be needlessly endangered,” the senators wrote. They did not call for a specific amount of funding.

The JPSS program is an offshoot of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a joint military-civilian program that the White House dismantled in February 2010. As a result, NOAA was directed to fund a constellation of polar-orbiting weather satellites for civil weather and climate forecasting, the development of which would be managed by NASA. The Air Force was directed to build its own military weather spacecraft.

NOAA sought just over $1 billion for JPSS for 2011 but  a long-delayed government spending package that finally passed in April provided only $382 million for the program.

NOAA’s 2012 budget request,  submitted to Congress in February, included $1.06 billion for JPSS. Agency officials, however, have said even if the full amount is provided, the nation still risks a minimum one-year gap in weather satellite coverage

Neither the House nor Senate has yet to take up a 2012 spending bill for NOAA. In May, the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee — a 12-member panel drafting legislation to fund NOAA and NASA, among other agencies, for the year ahead — received a top-line budget allocation of $50.2 billion, an amount $3 billion below what it appropriated for 2011 and some $7 billion below the amount the White House is requesting. The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is expected to oppose many of the steep budget cuts advocated in the Republican-controlled House, has not released its top-line spending allocations.

The letter notes the United States has seen a series of devastating weather events in 2011, including 1,300 tornadoes across multiple states that have killed more than 500 people and caused more than $10 billion in property damage. The results of these storms would have been far worse without early warnings from polar-orbiting weather satellites, the letter said.

“As we enter a predicted above-average hurricane season, we hope that the early warnings these satellites provide will continue to save lives, but we are concerned that lack of funding now will bring about unnecessary death and destruction in the future, when there are no accurate multi-day forecasts of severe weather,” they wrote.

Polar-orbiting weather satellites also played a role in the planning of the May 1 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and the recent NATO military actions in Libya, the letter says.

“It is worth noting that both the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden and the air strikes on Libya were appropriately delayed due to forecasts of unfavorable weather. It is critical to our national security that we maintain a robust system of satellites to observe the weather and feed forecasts globally – a system that requires both Air Force and NOAA weather satellites.”

Among those signing the June 17 letter were Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska); John Kerry (D-Mass.); Mark Udall (D-Colo.); John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.); Carl Levin (D-Mich.); Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.); Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.); Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.); Michael Bennet (D-Colo.); Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.); Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.); and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).



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