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NOAA Says Loss of Environmental Satellite Funding Could Halve Accuracy of Precipitation Forecasts

NOAA Satellite Forecasting SOURCE: NOAA, edited by Science Progress

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Association released new data yesterday showing precisely how the loss of environmental monitoring satellites would affect our ability to forecast extreme weather events, using the example of the “Snowmageddon” storm that dumped massive precipitation from the Gulf of Mexico to New England on February 5-6, 2010.

We here at CAP and Climate Progress have been keeping close tabs on House Republicans’ efforts to make the country more vulnerable to extreme weather events. If Congress refuses to fund new environmental monitoring satellites to replace aging spacecraft that could fail at any time, it will undoubtedly expose Americans to increased risk from storms, floods, blizzards, and hurricanes. Meanwhile, more and more science is emerging that strengthens the link between unprecedented weather phenomena and human-caused global climate change.

The GOP-controlled Congress took steps to eliminate $700 million in funding for NOAA’s satellite program in its bill to fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year (until October 2011). Though that bill is still being negotiated, the three-week continuing resolution that keeps the government open until April 8 also contained cuts to NOAA’s vital satellites.

As I have written, making these short-sighted cuts now will force taxpayers to spend three to five times as much to buy exactly the same equipment 18-months down the road—a delay extremely likely to leave the nation without coverage since our current satellites are approaching the end of their projected service lives. Failing to replace these vital sources of data is simply not an option. This is because these satellites are critical to our ability to predict and prepare for high-impact weather phenomena.

How critical? The graphics below show a “with” and “without” comparison of how forecasts for the “Snowmageddon” storm of 2010 would have been impacted by the loss of NOAA’s satellites. The first set of maps shows actual rainfall experienced in the central Gulf Coast; NOAA’s rainfall predictions; and the predictions that would have been filed without satellite data. The second set shows the same progression for the snowfall forecast in the mid-Atlantic region.

(click to enlarge)

Without the satellite data, NOAA’s forecasts lose as much as 50 percent of their accuracy, underforecasting snowfall in Washington, D.C. by almost foot, and rainfall in the Gulf by up to an inch. The resulting failure to prepare for flash floods, roadside strandings, air traffic delays, and transit interruptions could halt all commerce. Even worse, failing to maintain our satellite network, according to NOAA, would reduce future flood preparedness time from days to mere hours, putting human lives at risk.

Does it snow where you live? Does it rain? The GOP wants you to wait a year and a half and then pay five times as much to eventually get a reasonable estimate of how much wet stuff is going to fall from yonder cloud. Apparently their intention is to boost the economy through sales of bottled water, batteries, and toilet paper so everyone is prepared when the next big storm hits. Absent a substantial investment to maintain our environmental satellite network, it could happen any time—without warning—so you better start shopping.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Programs at American Progress. This article is cross-posted at Climate Progress.

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