Weather satellites: A critical piece of our nation's infrastructure

ADVERTISEMENT
Such pre-storm precautions limit economic damage and save lives -- vital outcomes that wouldn't be possible without the cutting-edge satellites orbiting Earth that allow meteorologists to accurately forecast where and when storms will hit.

Now imagine a world in which our ability to accurately forecast weather events was severely limited.

That would be disastrous. And yet, we may be without the crucial weather data this technology provides in just a few years. Our leaders must get the next series of weather satellites into space -- and soon. If they don't, our ability to forecast the weather and prepare for potentially catastrophic storms will diminish, thereby putting critical infrastructure and human lives at risk.

Meteorologists can predict complicated and massive weather patterns like this blizzard with such precision thanks to a system of geostationary and
polar-orbiting satellites.

Flown primarily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), geostationary satellites provide real-time, continuous imagery of the United Sates. The polar-orbiting satellites cover the entire planet twice daily, gathering enormous amounts of moisture, temperature, and image data to track and predict weather patterns as they take shape.

Beginning with the launch of Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP) satellite in 2011, our nation significantly upgraded its weather monitoring and severe storm prediction capabilities. The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program, currently in development, continues the advancements proven on S-NPP.

But recent budget constraints threaten our ability to forecast. There's the dangerous potential for a multi-year gap in coverage between S-NPP and its
successor - JPSS-1, or in the case of a launch failure, JPSS-2. A gap would degrade the quality of data available to our weather forecast system, and
impair its accuracy.

NOAA needs to develop JPSS-2, a backup to JPSS-1, now. As a government commissioned, independent review recently recommended, "Launch readiness dates for JPSS-1 and particularly for JPSS-2 need to be advanced. This must be a driving priority."

Any potential gap in information could have catastrophic consequences.

And not only for severe storm forecasting. Polar-orbiting satellites provide advance drought forecasts valued at $8 billion a year to the farming,
transportation, tourism, and energy sectors. Just by forecasting volcanic ash, they save the airline industry some $200 million annually.

But to truly see the power of these satellites, consider the major U.S. weather event of last year -- Superstorm Sandy.

In October, the nearly 1,000-mile-wide storm hit the East Coast with a wall of water and winds of up to 90 miles per hour. Sandy claimed 125 American
lives and resulted in over $100 billion in damages.

Polar-orbiting satellites provided 84 percent of the data in the National Weather Service computer forecast models that tracked Sandy. Almost a week
before Sandy made landfall, forecasters accurately predicted when it would hit and how strong it would be.

That forecast gave public officials, businesses, and ordinary citizens substantial time to prepare. New Jersey declared a state of emergency. Navy ships sailed out of port and into the open ocean to avoid the storm. Millions of families boarded up their windows, stocked up on basic supplies, and evacuated to safer areas.

Without polar-orbiting satellite data, Sandy forecasts would have been off -- way off. Europeans recently re-ran their Sandy forecast model without the
weather pattern data collected by the polar-orbiting satellites. The resulting prediction of the storm's pathway was hundreds of miles off -- and didn't show it hitting land at all.

Without the information furnished by polar-orbiting satellites, the next Sandy could catch us off guard -- and further devastate both people and
property.

Our current systems and advanced JPSS polar-orbiting satellites could forestall that outcome. To maximize weather security, a robust satellite program is critical. Federal officials must adequately fund JPSS-1, expedite the development of its backup and ensure timely introduction into service.

Friday, a former director of the National Weather Service, is a fellow and past president of the American Meteorological Society. He has also served as director of NOAA Research and as U.S Permanent Representative to the United Nation's World Meteorological Organization.