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Weather satellite and scientists may face funding drought despite devastating hurricanes

Weather satellite and scientists may face funding drought despite devastating hurricanes
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In November, the first government satellite in the Joint Polar Satellite System series, JPSS-1, an effort of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

And it began its orbit just in time. A month later, wildfires ravaged southern California and arctic cold beset the Midwest and East Coast just as the JPSS-1 instruments were starting to capture imagery. In doing so, JPSS-1 advances the capabilities of a constellation of civilian weather-monitoring satellites that orbit the earth from pole to pole.

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The recurrence of extreme weather is nearly assured. Funding for the JPSS program is not. The JPSS program will continue until 2038 — if Congress continues to fund it.

 

The success of a satellite program does not hinge solely on successful launches to replace older satellites, however. Congress must also fund the applied scientific research necessary to use the new data and improve weather forecasts in the decades to come. JPSS will assist meteorologists in monitoring the evolving state of the atmosphere and oceans, bettering predictions of severe weather events.

This is information we need to know. In 2017, the United States had 15 weather disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each, for a cumulative cost of over $25 billion, according to government estimates. This does not include losses from three devastating hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria. Those costs are yet undetermined and likely will increase losses to over $100 billion.

In comparison, the total estimated JPSS program cost through 2038 — which covers designing, building, launching and operating the program satellites — will be $18.8 billion, or less than $500 million per year, on average. This is less than one-half of 1 percent of this year’s expected disaster losses.

While some may view JPSS as a major government investment at a time when federal spending is under scrutiny, the program will help alleviate the financial, economic and human costs of weather disasters. If you think the weatherman is always wrong now (and that assumption is not valid), forecasting would be worse without JPSS.

Many scientists at America’s universities have worked to maximize the public benefits of the JPSS observations. The JPSS mission is not just about collecting “pretty pictures” of Earth. As striking as the imagery is, the data first must be converted to useful — and actionable — information. Scientists oversee this conversion and actively verify that the data are scientifically accurate.

Following the deadly and destructive Hurricane Sandy in 2012, NOAA partnered with universities to install and operate antennas around the country that can track JPSS-1 and receive weather satellite data broadcasts. The data collected are sent to NOAA supercomputers that produce digital weather forecasts, which arrive in the hands of meteorologists hours later.

Research now possible with JPSS to improve computer forecasts ultimately helps meteorologists save lives and property by giving advanced warnings. It’s complex work with a practical result. The government cost for funding one year of applied scientific research at a university is around one-thousandth of 1 percent of the total JPSS program cost. Cutting funding for such research would thus stress a crucial linkage between the JPSS data and its applications.

Before the next disaster strikes, we owe it to our neighbors to commit to strong science and community resilience through adequate funding for JPSS and the university and government scientists who undertake critical weather research and make the mission a success. Let’s not leave JPSS out in the cold during the upcoming appropriations.

Jordan Gerth is a meteorologist and associate researcher at the Space Science and Engineering Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.