Austerity And Our Dying Weather Satellites

Austerity! See how useful it is when we don't adequately fund valuable parts of our national infrastructure? WASHINGTON — The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting

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Austerity! See how useful it is when we don't adequately fund valuable parts of our national infrastructure?

WASHINGTON — The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews.

The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts now view as almost certain to occur within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is now expected to hit the Northeastern Seaboard early next week.

The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the entire planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms about five days ahead.

All this week, forecasters have been relying on such satellite observations for almost all of the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: explode against the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

Right on schedule, the five-day models began to agree on the likeliest answer. By Friday afternoon, the storm’s center was predicted to approach Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, with powerful winds, torrential rains and dangerous tides ranging over hundreds of miles, most dangerously up the coast. New York and other states declared emergencies; the Navy ordered ships to sea to avoid damage. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City warned that no matter where or when the storm’s center actually landed, the city would not escape its effects, but for now, he did not order evacuations of low-lying areas. But public safety officials from the Carolinas to New England were urgently advising tens of millions of residents to prepare for the worst, including the possibility of historic flooding, long-lasting power outages, and inland snow.

Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the massive snowfall that hit Washington in the 2010 blizzard nicknamed “Snowmageddon.”

“We cannot afford to lose any enhancement that allows us to accurately forecast any weather event coming our way,” said Craig J. Craft, commissioner of emergency management for Nassau County, Long Island, where the great hurricane of 1938 hit without warning and killed hundreds. On Thursday, Mr. Craft was seeking more precise forecasts for the looming storm and gearing up for possible hospital and nursing home evacuations, as were ordered before Hurricane Irene last year. “Without accurate forecasts it is hard to know when to pull that trigger.”

Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launching of the next replacement, known as JPSS-1, has slipped until early 2017, probably too late to avoid a gap of at least a year.

Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite’s managers are just beginning to think through their alternatives when the gap occurs, but these are unlikely to avoid it.

The mismanagement of the $13 billion program, which goes back a decade, was recently described as a “national embarrassment” by a top official of the Commerce Department.

Maybe if we pray really, really hard, it won't be a problem!

About Susie Madrak

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