Profile: Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation And Prediction & NOAA Deputy Administrator

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Kathryn Sullivan landed at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in May with a docket full of urgent priorities that will shape the agency for years to come.

Nominated to a newly created post by U.S. President Barack Obama in December, and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, Sullivan was immediately tasked with convincing Congress to appropriate a large sum of money for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) for weather forecasting.

JPSS was created in 2010 after the White House dismantled the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) NOAA was jointly pursuing with the Defense Department. NOAA was directed to fund a civilian satellite system for weather and climate forecasting, with NASA as the development agency; the Air Force was directed to build its own weather satellite system.

Congress passed a full-year spending bill for 2011 in April — some six months into the fiscal year — that provides only $382 million of the $1 billion NOAA sought for JPSS. NOAA still does not know exactly how much it will be able to spend on JPSS this year, as it is awaiting congressional approval of a revised spending plan sent to lawmakers June 14. Agency officials have warned that a gap in weather coverage is likely owing to JPSS delays stemming from the 2011 shortfall and that the situation could grow worse if Congress balks at the agency’s $1 billion request for the program in 2012.

Sullivan also is focused on creating a NOAA Climate Service that would centralize the agency’s climate data under a single organization and make that information readily accessible to the public. Though NOAA does not need new funding for this effort, it does need congressional approval to shift research and development funding into operational accounts. The proposal drew sharp criticism from Republicans during a June 22 hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Sullivan, a former astronaut who served as NOAA’s chief scientist from 1993 to 1996, spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.

 

With 16 months of hindsight, was it a mistake for the White House to break apart NPOESS?

Clearly it’s been painful, as any divorce always is. I wasn’t around the table at that time, as I’ve spent the past 15 years away from the agency. So to answer that question, I would’ve needed to take a whole different look at where the program was in execution.

 

Why does the nation need JPSS?

To protect life and property. To keep people safe. It’s absolutely as simple as that. The late April tornado outbreaks in Alabama are just one recent example. Our numerical weather models rely principally on satellite data, and polar satellites play a primary role in that. We were able to give that region of the country severe convective guidance five days in advance. Three days out, we heightened the alert because all the indicators were present in the models. Two days out, we raised it to the highest alert level that we ever use.

That doesn’t diminish the role of ground-based radars like the Nexrad system in monitoring specific cells as they form and move throughout communities. But it absolutely did alert Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters and regional offices to take inventory of where their assets were and to be ready for the high likelihood of having to mobilize that area. It absolutely did cue the American Red Cross for response, and it absolutely did cue school district superintendents and hospital managers to remind their folks what goes on when there’s a tornado warning.

Humankind doesn’t have the magic power to push a button and prevent a tornado from happening. So knowing it’s coming and giving people time to prepare, and then to let first responders be right there on the spot immediately, absolutely matters.

 

What options do you have if the JPSS program gets less than the $1 billion requested for 2012?

Program managers before I came aboard had already done a number of hard looks at different budget levels to determine what we can and need to field. We’ve looked at what things would have to be to put aside for a moment and flown at a later time.

We’re still waiting for final guidance from the Hill on this year’s budget, and we’ve set out a clear path to work with NASA and the Hill to define the key program elements to try to keep moving so that the gap that’s already projected doesn’t race further out in front of us. And the 2012 appropriation is just as pivotal as this year’s to determining when JPSS gets into orbit. Congress hasn’t spoken yet on our spending plan for this year, and we don’t know the 2012 number yet, either.

NOAA’s core mission responsibilities in statute and various mandates are fairly clear. Our mandated core mission is central forecast guidance and the weather prediction services that the country depends on. And that will have to be the priority we protect in every way we can.

 

Do you have the option of going back to cheaper legacy instruments?

It would be nice if we had an option to go back to Radio Shack and pick up something from aisle four to swap out for a JPSS instrument, but that is not the case here. We’ve had discussions with industry about reaching back to some older instrument, such as the legacy Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, but there aren’t any of those just lying around. Any of those instruments would still have a production time measured in years.

I think everyone’s putting all the conceivable cards on the table and looking at them as creatively as possible so that when we finally get the budget signals from the Congress on both 2011 and 2012 funding, we can come back to the table together and determine the trajectory we can put this program on.

 

Should NASA be contributing financially to JPSS?

The original intended relationship was that NOAA would receive the appropriations and pay the invoices from our contractor, NASA. But today we find ourselves in a really challenging national circumstance.

It’s a completely unusual budget year and a very difficult fiscal climate overall for the country, so in this circumstance I think one might raise the question of how does the country respond to this particular challenge and make sure we fulfill this obligation. I think that opens other lines of consideration for how to fund the program.

 

How does NOAA define climate versus weather?

Weather is my forecast view for what this afternoon is going to be like and what conditions to expect for about the next two weeks.

Climate is everything beyond two weeks. It’s the 18- to 24-month look at the phases of the El Niño and how they will likely affect next winter. If you were to ask me what you should plant in your garden on Capitol Hill next year and what will thrive there, that’s a climate question.

When we alerted the upper Missouri River and central Mississippi River basins in January that the spring flood potential was very high, that’s a little piece of NOAA’s service that is a climate service, telling you in advance of a trend you can expect to have to respond to. If an urban planner is working on a 30-year water capacity plan for New York City, that’s a climate question and we would like to be much more organized to respond to queries like that.

 

Why does the nation need a Climate Service?

The way NOAA manages climate data today is through a pretty complex set of matrix management functions that integrate knowledge and expertise and data and computing capacity from many different parts of the organization. What we have proposed in the 2012 budget is to bring those together under a coherent and single management structure and call it the NOAA Climate Service.

The debate over the last several years about the many-decades-long look at carbon trends and if there should be mitigation actions directed at carbon has become highly politicized. This has caused us to lose sight of the critical and near real-time economic piece of climate. People need easy access to the answers to the questions they’re asking to plan their businesses, lead their lives and maintain their communities. How much do we need to budget for over the next few years in Ohio for road salt? That can result in a swing of many hundreds of thousands of dollars in a county budget, and that matters.

There are data and outlook knowledge to give reliable enough answers to those questions.