Hurricane – Post-Tropical Storm Sandy is one of “those” moments. A moment that rallies the public and policy makers around an issue. Other “those” moments include 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of Sandy, an array of issues have surfaced including the role of climate change, vulnerability of urban infrastructure, and how it will effect the U.S. Presidential election. As I write this, another Nor’easter looks to impact the same region in the days after the election.
In the past week or so, I have been speaking to various media about the role of weather satellites and risks from our aging fleet. Contemporary society has no concept of a Sandy-type storm “blindsiding” them like the deadly and historic Galveston storm of 1900, which killed thousands. The first weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched in 1960. It began an era in which the United States would never be caught off guard from such storms again. Or did it?. In September 2012, the most active month, climatologically, in the Atlantic hurricane basin, the GOES-East weather satellite experienced technical malfunctions and was taken offline. Luckily, NOAA had a “spare” satellite in orbit. Ultimately, GOES-East was revived, but what if we didn’t have a spare? Geosynchronous satellites provide a constant watchful eye on the same location because it is basically orbiting the Earth at roughly the same rate that the Earth is rotating. If you have DirecTV or XM satellite radio, it is probably being transmitted via geosynchronous satellites.
The point herein is that the U.S. was very close to losing one of its primary weather satellites. I have noted many times that we cannot drop into Home Depot to buy a replacement like a lightbulb or AA-battery. Years of planning, engineering design, and testing are required. The U.S. agencies most closely linked to weather satellites, NOAA and NASA, have programs in place for the next-generation polar orbiting (i.e., the Joint Polar Satellite System) and geosynchronous (GOES-R) satellite programs. However, budget pressures, planning challenges, and the natural variability in satellite lifecycle have placed these aspects of the programs at risk, particularly the JPSS. Recent reports by government and external reviewers suggest the real possibility that we could have a “gap” in U.S. polar orbiter coverage by 2017. This gap could put U.S. citizens at risk. Not only do these satellites monitor storms and weather systems, data from instruments called sounders (i.e. satellite version of vertical atmospheric measurements taken from weather balloons) are fed into our weather prediction models. Senior NOAA officials often note that on the order of 90% of satellite data finds its way into models. Weather models predict the future state of the atmospheric fluid 1-10 days forward, on average, but the quality of such forecasts depends on how good you capture the atmosphere at the beginning. Or as I explain it to my kids, a batch of cupcakes will not turn out well if you start with the wrong ingredients.
Recently, I told Time Magazine, “There is a coming decline, gaps are opening in both our operational and research satellites. ). Not only are the operational satellites at risk of gaps, research satellites that study our climate system also. This was called attention to in a recent National Research Council report (NRC, 2012, ). Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and the report’s committee chair noted, “The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards.” The report notes that NASA and NOAA satellites could drop from 23 to 6 by 2020. Counting international partner satellites monitoring Earth and climate, this number could go from around 100 to 30. Unexpected launch failures and project delays are issues, but the main driver is budget pressure.
Recent events revealed by Sandy should cause everyone to step back for reflection. Extreme weather and climate are economic or “pocket book” issues. Ask anyone who has a house flooded or is paying more for cereal or bread because of drought. The infrastructure, insurance claims, and other costs will likely be in the 50-100 billion dollar range from Sandy alone. I have not even mentioned the costs of the drought in the wheat/corn belt, Hurricane Isaac, losses from record wildfires, and other weather events in 2012. A recent study by Lazo and colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, notes that economic losses from weather are roughly 3.4 percent of the entire U.S. GDP based on estimates through 2008. This works out to a yearly economic cost of $485 billion. I personally think this number is low because it may not capture high cost events from 2008 to 2012 or the revenue generated by industries in the private weather enterprise.
Now with this backdrop, let’s revisit the pressures on our Earth Observing fleet of satellites.
We lost, at launch, two critical satellites that would have provided information on carbon dioxide (OCO) and black carbon pollutants (Glory). Further, increasing budget shortsightedness is putting pressure on world-class research of missions that NASA and its partners envision to study aspects of Earth’s climate system.
Missions, like the ones that I worked on as a scientist at NASA (e.g., Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission) provide or will provide some of the most accurate measurements of global rainfall (and with GPM snow too), which are necessary for assessing climate change signatures on the water cycle, improving weather prediction (including storms like Sandy), and flood diagnosis and prediction. Like many satellite datasets, their value extends beyond observation and analysis, it is expected that some of the data will be ingested into our numerical weather models that make forecasts. It may be surprising to some, but even sea surface temperatures, a critical measurement for assessing intensity potential for storms like Sandy, are now derived from satellites. Because of such measurements, we knew that Sandy would tap into very warm waters of the U.S. coast.
Another example directly relevant to Sandy is the ICESAT mission. From 2003 to 2009, it provided valuable insight on ice sheets and frozen regions of the planet. Storm surge damage from Sandy was likely amplified by additional sea level (almost 1 foot in the past 100 years) from climate change-induced melting of our ice sheets. Most scientists will agree on this point, though more speculative links to climate change seen in the media should be considered more carefully, as my colleague Professor John Knox and I argue in a syndicated opinion editorial. Unfortunately, the ICESAT-2 mission mission will not be available until 2016. A set of aircraft flights and other observations, IceBridge, is trying to fill gaps, but with current budget tussles in Washington and a looming budget sequestration, important missions like the forthcoming GPM and ICESAT-2 could be negatively impacted.
Sandy is a “teachable” moment on why investments in weather and climate satellite systems more than pay for themselves in U.S. lives saved and economic impacts. Without the contributions of satellites to monitor Sandy, derive sea surface temperature, or feed prediction models, who know what the losses from such storms would be.
Biosketch: Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is a Professor and Director of the University of Georgia Atmospheric Sciences Program. He is the incoming President of the American Meteorological Society and former Deputy Project Scientist for NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. He serves on several NOAA and NASA advisory boards.
JC comment: This is a guest post, I invited Marshall Shepherd to write a post for Climate Etc. based upon his recent statements in the media about the U.S. satellite situation. As with all guest posts, please be on your best (i.e. most civil behavior) in making comments.