- Advocacy & Policy
- Research Center
By Marion C. Blakey
AIA President and Chief Executive Officer
Several years ago, when a senior government official was testifying before Congress in defense of weather satellite budgets, he was stunned to be asked by a member, “Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?”
Those of us in the aerospace industry know the short answer: Without NOAA, there would be no Weather Channel. The satellite imagery and data utilized by the Weather Channel and countless other reporting and predicting outlets are generated by satellites operated by NOAA and developed by industry under the auspices of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
In fact, more than 90 percent of all weather data generated for NOAA forecasts comes from government satellites. These satellites are the critical tools used to generate complex forecasting models and the watches and warnings that help people prepare for tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and other severe weather.
These satellites save lives. After a catastrophic tornado struck Joplin, Mo., last May, NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan was surveying the damage when a woman, with tears in her eyes, said that NOAA forecasts had probably saved her family. It was a poignant moment in the aftermath of a storm that cost 160 lives.
Rarely does someone so clearly express an understanding of the direct connection between government investments and the impact it has on peoples’ lives. But it’s a connection that we’re hoping will increasingly be made by policymakers in Washington.
At a time when the number of severe weather events is on the rise (NOAA has called 2011 among the most extreme weather years in our nation’s history), now is the time to ensure full funding of U.S. satellite programs.
The 2013 NOAA budget request includes $186.4 million for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series (GOES-R). With its development overseen by NASA, when launched in 2015 this next-generation satellite will provide a wide-angle view of atmospheric conditions and updates on the likelihood of a storm to spawn tornadoes. GOES-R satellites will provide new data in intervals of seconds, versus the seven-and-a-half-minute intervals provided by current technologies. Perhaps most importantly, the GOES-R is expected to significantly improve severe weather warning time – nearly doubling the amount of time people will have to take shelter after the initial alert goes out.
Thankfully, the 2013 funding request for NOAA puts GOES-R back on track after the program was significantly underfunded in 2012.
The budget request is also favorable for another key program, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The White House request for 2013 fully funds JPSS, providing stability to the program, but this satellite system and GOES-R now both fall under the dark cloud that is sequestration.
Last year’s Budget Control Act requires across-the-board cuts to NASA and NOAA beginning in January 2013 - but due to advance notification requirements on employee terminations and contracting requirements and best practices, the impact will begin to be felt even sooner, before the fall election. A cut of 9.1 percent to NASA next year would immediately eliminate $1.6 billion from the agency’s budget. NOAA’s weather satellite programs would be cut by $182 million.
An estimate released last year by Congressman Norm Dicks, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with oversight of science funding, stated that sequestration would result in a two- to four-year period in which weather data from NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellite would be unavailable, and up to 10 percent of staffing and resources for local weather warnings and forecasts would be eliminated. As he put it, this would be “putting American communities at greater risk from tornadoes, hurricanes and other major weather events.”
In short, sequestration would hit space programs like a tidal wave, making the programs’ current cost and schedule challenges seem inconsequential.
Needless to say, AIA and its members are strongly urging members of Congress to do everything in their power to prevent sequestration from taking place.
Last year, NOAA ran a test using 1960s technology to see what the 2010 “Snowmaggedon” forecast would have been using only buoys and weather balloons for modeling data. Without satellites, the models underestimated snowfall by 10 inches – about one-fifth of the total snowfall for a storm that paralyzed Washington and much of the Mid-Atlantic for days.
We can’t let sequestration take weather forecasting back to the 1960s. NOAA satellite systems are saving lives and money at a time when our weather is becoming more and more volatile. Congress should work to end sequestration, and ensure that communities continue to receive the information they need to keep people safe. There’s an old saying that claims “you can’t predict the weather,” but we’re certainly getting better at it. We’re going to keep working to make sure Congress doesn’t turn back the clock.