This week, another nor’easter is brewing off the East Coast. Meteorologists will watch the storm develop with one of the newest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites. The new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, known as GOES-R, has been in orbit for over a year and is a sentinel for Atlantic-borne cyclones.
Earlier this month, a companion weather satellite, GOES-S, launched from Cape Canaveral and will soon monitor for Pacific cyclones. Collectively, these new satellites will capture and send, with unprecedented timeliness, weather data and imagery that meteorologists, emergency managers, government agencies, universities, and companies use to minimize the role of the weather on transportation and commerce, ensure planes land safely, and protect Americans from severe weather.
But this satellite data relay is in serious risk. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a proposal that would impede the timely delivery of critical weather data that has been a cornerstone of successful warnings for decades, and which GOES-R and GOES-S are designed to deliver.
The FCC allocates the national spectrum for non-federal users — the frequencies that enable all forms of wireless technology to co-exist without interruption. From making a cell phone call, to navigating through a new city with GPS, or even watching television, nearly all Americans rely on the uninterrupted use of wireless spectrum daily.
Nestled in the FCC’s budget proposal for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 is a plan to auction a portion of spectrum, between 1675 and 1680 MHz, which is currently allocated for weather satellites. An auction would void the government’s exclusive use of the frequencies, requiring sharing and causing interference with a mobile network operating on stronger signals.
Currently, data from GOES-R is delivered to users almost instantly, because seconds matter when dealing with hazardous weather. The advanced imagers on GOES-R and GOES-S can capture evolving storms up to every 30 seconds. This succession of images is critical because volcanoes can erupt, tornadoes can form, and wildfires can spread in an instant.
With these new satellite observations, American citizens do not have to fear sudden and unexpected storms — if the data is not interrupted. It has not always been that way. Over a century ago, without satellites, thousands perished in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
While we still lose too many Americans to weather disasters, hurricane fatalities per event are now in the dozens or less as warnings are heeded. The predictions for Harvey were excellent, and satellites tracked the formation of the dangerous eye. Hurricane Harvey caused 89 fatalities despite being one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history with $125 billion in damage.
Proponents of sharing weather satellite spectrum argue that this lifesaving data can be disseminated through terrestrial Internet delivery. But as occurred with Harvey, Internet and phone service are interrupted in storms. A loss of Internet connectivity at a state emergency management office could imperil evacuees or delay worried residents from returning home. In contrast, the GOES-R transmission is not impacted unless the receiving antenna blows away.
Proponents have also touted that the benefits to the Treasury outweigh the risk of interruption. The FCC estimates that sharing the spectrum currently allocated to the weather satellites will produce $600 million in revenue over the next 10 years. That sounds significant, but weather disasters like Harvey cumulatively cost the U.S. over $300 billion in 2017 alone.
Furthermore, according to the Government Accountability Office, the nation’s investment in GOES-R, GOES-S, and two additional satellites will likely exceed $10 billion. While the auction revenue may be a short-term benefit, it is small in contrast to the investment into the satellites, which were designed specifically to transmit imagery fast and reliably.
The concept of sharing is simply not practical while GOES-R and GOES-S are in orbit. Powerful signals from cell towers operating adjacent to the quiet signals of satellites is similar to trying to whisper in a crowded sports bar. In a recent policy paper, the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy was critical of pursuing an auction and sharing strategy, concluding “[i]nterference within the GOES transmission band could have a significant impact on the safety of life and property.”
We must not put lives at risk. Weather impacts our country and our commerce every day. A safe flight requires careful planning to avoid hazards like turbulence and lightning from thunderstorms. In order to continue to increase our nation’s disaster preparedness and decrease fatalities, the FCC and Congress must keep our satellite signals clear.
Jordan Gerth is a meteorologist and associate researcher at the Space Science and Engineering Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.