— While the Pentagon is looking to the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites primarily to support its worldwide military operations, the system also will play a key role in climate research that many experts believe has growing relevance to national security, according to program officials.
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) lost several dedicated climate research instruments in a June 2006 restructuring but still has significant capabilities in this area, according to Dan Stockton, a recently retired Air Force colonel who now serves as program executive officer for NPOESS at the U.S. Commerce Department.
Several former military and intelligence officials over the past year have drawn a link between climate research and national security. One of the most recent examples is a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, two Washington think tanks, entitled “The Age of Consequences: the Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change.”
The authors of the report, released Nov. 5, include James Woolsey, former director of central intelligence, and Leon Fuerth, who served as national security advisor to Al Gore during his vice presidency.
The report says
that if climate change follows current trends, it could result in conflicts sparked by resource scarcity,
and population migrations
If the trends worsen, those types of effects could lead to large-scale conflicts, potentially involving countries with nuclear weapons, according to the report.
The report does not refer to NPOESS, which is funded jointly by the Air Force and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Commerce Department. But Stockton, in an Oct. 31 interview, said those spacecraft can play an important role in this area because they still will be able to measure 14 of the 26 variable phenomena deemed by scientists to play a major role in climate change.
Some of the variables that NPOESS will monitor as part of climate research include water surface levels and temperature, sea ice, snow cover and cloud properties.
The Nov. 5 report notes that snow levels can play into water supplies, particularly in mountainous areas where snow on a mountain can hydrate a region for agriculture when it melts in the springtime.
Rising water levels could play a key role in the disappearance of low-lying coastal areas, leading to a massive migration of hundreds of millions of people, with the most severe scenarios involving billions of people being forced to relocate, according to the report.
The NPOESS satellites are being built by Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., and scheduled to start launching around 2013.
Members of the House Science and Technology Committee raised concern during a June hearing about the impact on climate research of the 2006 NPOESS restructuring, which was ordered after the program ran into technical difficulty that drove up its cost dramatically.
program official said the removal of dedicated climate science instruments
will have only a limited impact on the NPOESS system’s contribution to climate change research. But this official also acknowledged that some important measurements that have been lost.
The elimination of the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, for example,
will diminish the satellites’ contribution to studies intended to differentiate between natural causes of global warming and those associated with human activity, the official said.
The restructuring also dropped the Earth Radiation Budget Sensor, which monitors subtle long-term shifts in climate patterns. The impact of this move will be felt on the satellites that follow the first NPOESS platform, which will feature the Clouds and Earth Radiant Energy System that can take similar measurements, the program official said.
The restructuring also degraded but did not eliminate altogether the satellites’ ability to provide measurements of ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere, the program official said.
The White House currently is working with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on alternatives for taking the measurements that were lost or degraded under the restructured NPOESS plan. Among the options is placing several instruments on dedicated climate monitoring satellites.
Stockton said the design for the first NPOESS satellite is locked down as part of an effort to keep down risk on the program. However, the climate research instruments could be restored on the satellites that follow, assuming their interface designs and power requirements do not change, he said.
However, restoring these measurements would require funding from outside the NPOESS program, Stockton said. Those instruments also would need to be ready two years before delivery of a given NPOESS satellite, he said.