Budget Cuts Put ‘Environmental Intelligence’ at Risk

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U.S. scientific agencies are bracing for big budget cuts, and America’s environmental information supply chain is in grave danger as a result.

The timing of this potential dumbing down of “environmental intelligence” couldn’t be worse in light of the upward trend in natural disasters, like the recent catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan and last year’s deadly Russian heat wave. The United States alone experienced a record 247 natural disaster events in 2010, according to Munich Re. Meanwhile, international competition is increasing as China has announced a plan to launch 13 weather satellites in the coming decade. And, report after report cautions about the destabilizing impacts of increasingly insufficient water resources, given the linkages between drought, wheat production, the world food crisis and civil unrest.

There’s no doubt that tough choices must be made in tough economic times.

These choices, however, must not compromise our nation’s ability to collect and deliver accurate and timely information about our world that enables governments, communities, companies and individuals to make sound decisions that save lives, protect and grow the economy, strengthen national security and improve our quality of life.

Environmental intelligence is the result of a critical but fragile supply chain that begins with science and observations — ground sensors, ocean buoys, stream gauges, satellites, etc. — and ends with actionable information that allows decision-makers to better respond and adapt to a changing planet. That supply chain is threatened, however, by broad cuts to the nation’s Earth-observing programs.

Most of us benefit from the environmental information supply chain almost every day in the form of that cherished weather report we consult before going to work or sending the kids off to school. The weather information supply chain begins with NASA research and development, which leads to technology that is transitioned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for operational purposes. NOAA satellites and other instruments collect and store environmental data that are fed into complex computer models. That model output fuels forecasts provided by NOAA’s National Weather Service and the $1.7 billion private-sector weather services industry, which in turn delivers value-added weather information and alerts to media outlets, farmers and agricultural companies, transportation authorities, and even directly to your smartphone.

What many people do not realize is that the supply chain process that produces that much-valued weather report is years to decades in the making and is threatened by looming gaps in critical data due in large part to funding deficits combined with satellites operating beyond their planned lifetimes, with replacements either not ready or not planned. These same gaps also threaten a similar supply chain process — sometimes involving different players such as the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey — that produces a variety of vital information products related to oceans, drought, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, forests, polar ice, climate and more.

Therefore, each time Earth science investment is reduced, the nation’s ability to monitor and forecast tornadoes and tsunamis, for example, or provide data for the emerging wind energy market is threatened. And it’s not just the satellites and other instruments that monitor the planet that are jeopardized by slash-and-burn budget cuts, but also critical improvements in computing capabilities, efforts to integrate data sets across numerous federal agencies whose formats are incompatible with one another, and the mechanisms by which the public and private sectors deliver data to users and decision-makers in a timely manner.

Significant sacrifices are an unfortunate reality in the face of hard economic challenges. But the proposed U.S. budget cuts lack a nuanced approach that recognizes potential long-term impacts and costs that would far outweigh the benefit of any short-term savings. They also illuminate another important issue: No long-term national vision exists for these vital programs that enable us to see how the planet is changing — to capture and deliver information needed by energy companies to better manage resources, emergency workers to respond to a hurricane or earthquake, military planners to prepare for friction caused by drought-induced food shortages, or government officials to respond to disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be what can we cut, but rather how do we better invest to better protect our citizens and grow the economy?

In a time of national budget woes, it’s fantasy to think that any one agency or program is immune to cuts. We must beware, however, that cutting too deep or without care or a plan will almost certainly lead to inadequacies in the information needed to make sound decisions related to our environment, which impacts every sector of the U.S. economy, today and for many years and decades to come.

 

Nancy Colleton is president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, and executive director of the institute’s Alliance for Earth Observations initiative.