T he U.S. National Weather Service’s Space Environment Center can predict disruptive solar storms days in advance, but forecasters here had no advance warning that a 44-percent budget cut was headed their way.
While the daily space weather bulletins the center issues to satellite operators, airlines, power companies and many others will continue, the cut is expected to severely hamstring the center’s efforts to advance the state of the art of space weather prediction.
The White House requested $7.2 million for the Space Environment Center for 2006. By the time Congress passed its spending bills for the year, the center’s budget had been pared back to $3.9 million, without explanation .
Ron Zwicki, acting director of the Space Environment Center here, said he still does not know why the 41-person operation took such a big budgetary hit.
“We’ve asked other folks who have contacts,” he said in an interview . “There’s no word in the appropriations act that came out and there’s no feedback. In ’03 there was.”
He was referring to the bruising budget battle the Space Environment Center fought in 2003 when Senate appropriators, deciding that forecasting space weather was not something the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should be doing, zeroed the center’s budget. The National Weather Service is part of NOAA.
“The ‘Atmospheric’ in NOAA does not extend to the astral,” read the report accompanying the Senate Appropriations Committee’s version of the 2004 NOAA spending bill. “Absolutely no funds are provided for solar observation. Such activities are rightly the bailiwick of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Air Force.”
The House Science environment, technology and standards subcommittee convened a hearing in October 2003 where officials from NASA, the U.S. Air Force, satellite operator Loral Skynet and United Airlines attested to the importance of the Space Environment Center’s daily bulletins and warnings to their operations.
Lawmakers also heard about the threat geomagnetic storms pose to electrical power grids. One such storm was blamed for the 1989 HydroQuebec blackout that left 6 million people without power for nine hours or more. Advance warning of adverse space weather can allow power companies to protect their grids by, for example, reducing loads on sensitive circuits until the threat has passed.
“Many of us may think of solar eruptions as a curiosity, or as the source of the beautiful aurora borealis often observed by residents in the northern U.S.,” Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said at the time. “However, as highlighted by recent media attention, these solar events can have serious repercussions for Earth-based technological systems.”
When all was said and done, the Space Environment Center received $5.2 million for 2004 —- 40 percent less than the White House request, but still something of a victory considering that the center’s very survival had been in jeopardy. More importantly, the Space Environment Center’s supporters appeared to have gotten their message to Congress through: The operation is the world’s lead warning center for disturbances in the space environment that can affect people and equipment. In short, space weather is weather.
Congress approved $6.9 million for the Space Environment Center for 2005, the same year the center formally joined the National Weather Service, and the operation appeared to be on surer political footing. That is why this year’s unexplained 44-percent reduction came as such a shock to the center’s staff and supporters.
It’s even a mystery to the ranking Democrat on the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, whose district includes the Space Environment Center .
“I don’t think we still have a clear answer,” Udall said in an April 4 interview at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I don’t know whether they were looking for money to shift to other places [or] whether it wasn’t returning a product or service that made sense, which of course is misguided.”
Udall said regardless of the reasons for the cut, he is ready to do battle on the center’s behalf, as he did in 2003. “All I know is I am going to fight for the funding,” he said.
“This isn’t about the local interest, even though the Space Environment Center has a local presence,” Udall continued. “Their work is vitally important and so much of what we depend upon in the world of commerce, the world of military information, and countless other applications would be damaged — in some cases beyond repair — if we don’t have this alert system in place that the Space Environment Center provides.”
While Udall takes up the center’s cause in Congress, here on the mountainside campus the center shares with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Weather Service’s Denver-area forecast office, staff are tightening their belts and postponing projects in order to make it through the year.
No layoffs are expected because NOAA has proposed shifting some money from other areas to allow the Space Environment Center to keep its entire current staff and bring some new employees on board to help it comply with new information technology security standards for federal agencies.
Zwicki said other openings at the center will go unfilled, with employee travel, training and planned computer replacements all curtailed.
Most significantly, according to Zwicki, many projects the Space Environment Center had planned this year to help improve space weather forecasts are on hold.
“Only the staff that is here can work on anything to improve the state of the art,” Zwicki said.
Like the National Weather Service, the Space Environment Center gathers information from a variety of satellites and Earth-based sensors and runs the data through models and analysis tools to produce daily space weather bulletins that are sent out to over 3,400 subscribers.
Before a new model or forecasting tool can be declared operational, it has to be rigorously tested and shown to be effective. Many do not make the cut.
Joseph Kunches, the center’s chief forecaster, said the extensive testing and outside computer support needed to advance the state of the art simply are not in the budget this year.
The Space Environment Center had hoped to hire someone this year to manage the transition of new forecasting tools into its system. Zwicki said NOAA and NASA are spending millions of dollars on trailblazing observations and research that could prove useful to space weather forecasters, but it takes time and energy to develop new prediction tools based on these inputs and bring them into the operational realm.
“That’s one of our key weaknesses right now — our ability to transition,” Zwicki said about the cost-saving measures the center is taking. “It’s our ability to transition.”