NPOESS Needed Now More than Ever

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In the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent threats of Hurricanes Ophelia and Rita, the United States faces one of the most active storm seasons ever — with more to come.

The Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean basin average 10 named storms each year. We’ve already had 17. Now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has updated its outlook, anticipating 18 to 21 tropical storms for the season with at least half of those becoming hurricanes and more than five developing into major hurricanes (category three and above).

As a former professional meteorologist on television for many years, I know forecasters rely heavily on weather satellites and specialized aircraft to provide up-to-the-minute information on wind speeds, ocean surfaces and temperature changes for predicting tropical storm and hurricane activity. This critical information is used by local officials and emergency crews in disaster planning and allows for the safe evacuation of a community, or even an entire city.

The space-based systems that we already have are tracking hurricane development, measuring wind velocity and rainfall, and providing images of flooding that tremendously help in disaster relief efforts. Future systems now under development will have advanced technologies that will further improve weather forecasting to the point where it will be possible for national and local authorities to plan several more days in advance with more certainty.

A program called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which combines military and civilian weather satellites into one national program, will not only improve weather forecasting, it will also improve NOAA’s ability to warn the public of life-threatening weather.

Recently, however, some misleading information has been communicated in the media about the program that I would like to address so that the public understands how important the NPOESS program is to the nation.

The NPOESS program office has taken on a very complex challenge: that of satisfying military, civilian and science users with a single system that will fly 13 different sensing instruments in a three-orbit constellation. This represents new sensors, new satellites, new ground processing and new infrastructure.

The developmental sensors are encountering problems that have exhausted the minimal management reserve funds, forcing a restructuring of the program to stay within the previously planned budgets. The choice is either to add additional money to correct the problems or stretch the program schedule and risk a critical gap in weather coverage.

Based on my knowledge of the program and as a meteorologist, I believe support for this program must continue and the objectives of the agencies involved (the Department of Defense , NOAA and NASA) must stay intact to achieve the goal of delivering significant improvements in weather forecasting that will help save lives and property.

The tri-agency leadership of the program has chartered an independent review team to report back on cost options within 60 days and on the overall organization and program performance by December. I remain hopeful that this independent assessment will find the majority of the NPOESS system is on track to provide critical information for research, weather forecasting improvements and become a force multiplier for the military.

I encourage those involved to make the necessary decisions now to complete NPOESS and get the satellites up and operational. The technology, which has been refined over the past 10 years, is ready to move from research to operations, and we need the capability that NPOESS offers now more than ever.

Dave Jones is president and chief executive officer of StormCenter Communications, Inc. in Ellicott City, Md., and president of the Foundation for Earth Science.