Report warns of weather satellites' 'rapid decline'

6:23 AM, May 3, 2012   |    comments
Satellite shows Hurricane Maria about 640 miles southwest of Cape Race, Newfoundland.
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(USA TODAY) - Predicting the weather is tricky enough. Now a new government-sponsored report warns that the USA's ability to track tornadoes, forecast hurricanes and study climate change is about to diminish.

The number and capability of weather satellites circling the planet "is beginning a rapid decline" and tight budgets have significantly delayed or eliminated missions to replace them, says a National Research Council analysis out Wednesday.

The number of in-orbit and planned Earth observation missions by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projected to drop "precipitously" from 23 this year to only six by 2020, the report found.

That means the number of instruments monitoring Earth's activity is expected to decline from a peak of about 110 last year to fewer than 30 by the end of the decade.

"Right now, when society is asking us the hardest questions and the most meaningful questions, we're going to be even more challenged to answer them," said Stacey Boland, a senior systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and a member of the committee that wrote the report. "We'll slowly become data-starved here."

The report credits NASA with finding creative ways to prolong the life of existing satellites and working with international partners to fill in forecasting gaps.

But, the authors said, glue and scissors only go so far.

When a similar analysis was issued five years ago, eight satellites were expected to be in space by 2012 tracking a variety of conditions. Only three are in orbit. Of the remaining five, two failed, one was canceled and two others won't launch until at least next year.

The pipeline looks emptier over the next decade.

Of 18 missions recommended in the 2007 report through 2020, only two are close enough to completion to register launch dates.

Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee, warned that the loss of capacity will have "profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards."