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A Forecast for Disaster

Stormy Conditions Await if NOAA Funding Is Cut

All Americans stand to lose economically if House Republicans succeed in cutting funding for new environmental satellites, writes Michael Conathan.

An image provided by NOAA and taken February 1, 2011, shows a huge swath of the United States affected by a winter storm. NOAA's satellites play a key role in projecting the strength and tracking of major storms and hurricanes. (AP/NOAA)
An image provided by NOAA and taken February 1, 2011, shows a huge swath of the United States affected by a winter storm. NOAA's satellites play a key role in projecting the strength and tracking of major storms and hurricanes. (AP/NOAA)

Weather predictions used to be a frequent punchline but they have improved dramatically in recent years. More often than not you’ll need an umbrella if your local television channel or website of choice tells you to bring one when you leave the house. But we could take a huge step back to the days when your dartboard had a reasonable chance of outpredicting Al Roker if House Republicans have their way with the 2011 federal budget.

The House of Representatives is debating the Full Year Continuing Resolution Act (H.R. 1) to fund the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011. The Republican leadership has proposed sweeping cuts to key programs across the climate change, clean energy, and environmental spectrum. They have also decided that accurate weather forecasting and hurricane tracking are luxuries America can no longer afford.

The GOP’s bill would tear $1.2 billion (21 percent) out of the president’s proposed budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. On the surface, cutting NOAA may seem like an obvious choice. The FY 2011 request for the agency included a 16 percent boost over 2010 levels that would have made this year’s funding level of $5.5 billion the largest in NOAA’s history.

Even this total funding level, however, is woefully insufficient for an agency tasked with managing such fundamental resources as the atmosphere that regulates our climate, the 4.3 million square miles of our oceanic exclusive economic zone, the ecological health of coastal regions that are home to more than 50 percent of all Americans, response to environmental catastrophes including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and fisheries that employ thousands of Americans and annually contribute tens of billions of dollars to the national economy.

More than $700 million of the president’s proposed 2011 increase in NOAA funding would be tagged for overhauling our nation’s aging environmental satellite infrastructure. Satellites gather key data about our oceans and atmosphere, including cloud cover and density, miniscule changes in ocean surface elevation and temperatures, and wind and current trajectories. Such monitoring is integral to our weather and climate forecasting and it plays a key role in projections of strength and tracking of major storms and hurricanes—things most Americans feel are worth keeping an eye on.

In fact, NOAA has been making great strides in hurricane tracking. The average margin of error for predicting landfall three days in advance was 125 miles in 2009—half what it was 10 years prior. This data translates into a higher degree of confidence among the public in NOAA’s forecasts, which means individuals will be more likely to obey an evacuation order. Further, since evacuating each mile of shoreline costs approximately up to $1 million, greater forecasting accuracy translates to substantial savings.

The United States needs these satellites if we’re to continue providing the best weather and climate forecasts in the world. The implications of the loss of these data far exceed the question of whether to pack the kids into snowsuits for the trip to school. The concern here is ensuring ongoing operational efficiency and national security on a global scale. In some cases it can literally become a question of life and death.

Consider the following numbers:

  • The $700 billion maritime commerce industry moves more than 90 percent of all global trade, with arrival and departure of quarter-mile long container ships timed to the minute to maximize revenue and efficiency. Shipping companies rely on accurate forecasts to set their manifests and itineraries.
  • Forecasting capabilities are particularly strained at high latitudes and shippers have estimated that the loss of satellite monitoring capabilities could cost them more than half a billion dollars per year in lost cargo and damage to vessels from unanticipated heavy weather.
  • When a hurricane makes landfall, evacuations cost as much as $1 million per mile. Over the past decade, NOAA has halved the average margin of error in its three-day forecasts from 250 miles to 125 miles, saving up to $125 million per storm.
  • Commercial fishing is the most dangerous profession in the country with 111.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. A fisherman’s most valuable piece of safety equipment is his weather radio.
  • When disaster strikes at sea, polar-orbiting satellites receive emergency distress beacons and relay positioning data to rescuers. This resulted in 295 lives saved in 2010 alone and the rescue of more than 6,500 fishermen, recreational boaters, and other maritime transportation workers since the program began in 1982.
  • Farmers rely on NOAA’s drought predictions to determine planting cycles. Drought forecasts informed directly by satellite data have been valued at $6 billion to 8 billion annually.
  • NOAA’s volcanic ash forecasting capabilities received international attention last spring during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. The service saves airlines upwards of $200 million per year.
  • NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites are America’s only source of weather and climate data for vast areas of the globe, including areas key to overseas military operations. Their data are integral to planning deployments of troops and aircraft—certain high-atmosphere wind conditions, for example, can prohibit mid-air refueling operations.

All of these uses will be compromised if the Republicans succeed in defunding NOAA’s satellite program. At least an 18-month gap in coverage will be unavoidable without adequate funding for new polar-orbiting satellites this year. More troubling, taking an acquisition program offline and then restarting the process at a later date would lead to cost increases of as much as three to five times the amount the government would have to spend for the same product today.

So here’s the choice: Spend $700 million this year for continuous service or $2 billion to $3.5 billion at some point in the future for the same equipment and a guaranteed service interruption.

Environmental satellites are not optional equipment. This is not a debate about whether we should splurge on the sunroof or the premium sound system or the seat warmers for our new car. Today’s environmental satellites are at the end of their projected life cycles. They will fail. When they do, we must have replacements ready or risk billions of dollars in annual losses to major sectors of our economy and weakening our national security.

That’s an ugly forecast. Tragically, it’s also 100 percent accurate.

Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy