An instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite snaps a picture of Sandy as a hurricane,
moving along the U.S. East Coast. Image courtesy Suomi NPP/NOAA/NASA

Turbulence Ahead for Weather Satellites

A potential gap in weather satellite coverage could impact daily and long-term forecasts and research, scientists say.

Jane J. Lee
National Geographic News
Published February 21, 2013

Like a celestial version of Pixar’s industrious robot Wall-E, environmental-monitoring satellites continually whiz overhead, quietly performing their allotted tasks of taking data and beaming the information down to climate researchers and weather forecasters.

But a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlights the fact that this monitoring network—which weather forecasters and climate researchers rely on—is in trouble.

That’s because these U.S.-owned satellites are aging, and there are serious concerns about whether their replacements will be ready by the time they start to break down, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and a professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. (Read about the history of satellites.)

The replacement program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), has suffered under ballooning budgets, mismanagement, and political wrangling. That’s partly what prompted the GAO to put weather data on its list of government operations at high risk.

The report stated that “potential gaps in environmental-satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings—including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—will be less accurate and timely.”

“But even a 17-month gap, [the shortest estimate for a potential data gap], dramatically affects weather forecast ability, which could lead to challenges to protecting life and property,” Shepherd said.

Read more: Turbulence Ahead for Weather Satellites — National Geographic.

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