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 and underfunding, 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 northeast seaboard early next week.
The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the whole 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 around five days ahead.
All this week, forecasters have been relying on just 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?
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 arrives, 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.
This summer, three independent reviews — by the Commerce inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and a blue-ribbon team of outside experts — each questioned the government’s cost estimates for the program, criticized the program’s managers for not pinning down the designs and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, along with NASA.
The outside review team, led by A. Thomas Young, an aerospace industry leader, called the management of the program “dysfunctional.”
In response, top Commerce and NOAA officials on Sept. 18 ordered what they called an urgent restructuring — just the latest overhaul of a program that has been troubled for many years. They streamlined the management, said they would fill key vacancies quickly, demanded immediate reports on how the agency might try to cope with the gap. They have moved quickly to nail down the specific designs of the JPSS1’s components, many of them already partly built. And they promised to quickly complete a new independent cost estimate to verify the program’s budget.
“There is no more critical strategic issue for our weather satellite programs than the risk of gaps in satellite coverage,” wrote Jane Lubchenco, the under secretary of Commerce responsible for NOAA, in her memorandum ordering the changes.
Ms. Lubchenco wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix “this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”
“It is a long, sad history,” said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council. The report projected a dismal decline in what has been among the crown jewels of modern earth and atmospheric science.
The JPSS (for Joint Polar Satellite System) also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk.
But its main satellites, about the size of small school buses, are most notable because they put instruments to sense atmospheric moisture, temperature and the like into what is known as the “polar p.m.” orbit, a passage from lower altitude that provides sharp and frequent images of weather patterns spanning the globe. (Other satellites stare continuously at one part of the globe from farther off, for short-term forecasting.)
Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking the course of Hurricane Sandy, which at first was expected to amble harmlessly away, but now appears poised to strike the mid-Atlantic states.
For years, as the accuracy of this kind of forecasting has steadily improved, NOAA’s p.m. polar satellites have been a crucial player, like the center on a basketball team.
But all the while, despite many warnings, the gap has grown ever more likely.
The department told Congress this summer that it could not come up with any way to launch JPSS-1, the next polar satellite any sooner. Kathryn Sullivan, assistant secretary of Commerce, said it “will endeavor to maintain the launch date as much as practicable.”
The accountability office, which views the impending gap as “almost certain,” has been urging NOAA to come up with alternatives, like leaning on other commercial, military or government satellites for helpful data. But it observed that it would take a long time and more money to bring any such jury-rigged system on line.
For now, the agency is running on a stopgap financing bill that gives it authority to shift money from other projects to the polar satellites. In approving the money, Congress demanded a written plan by next week showing how NOAA intended to stay on schedule and within a strict limit — about $900 million a year. The agency has said its top priority is to verify its latest cost estimates, produced in the past few months.
“NOAA does not have a policy to effect consistent and reliable cost estimates,” the inspector general said. The outside review team said it could not tell “if the current $12.9 billion is high, low, or exactly correct.”
The program’s problems began a decade ago with an effort to merge military and civilian weather satellites into a single project. After its cost doubled and its schedule slipped five years, that project was sundered by the Obama administration.
As its existing satellites aged and the delays mounted, NOAA finally put a new model named Suomi (after a weather-satellite pioneer) into orbit a year ago. It was initially seen as a test bed to reduce risks in the two main replacement satellites. Brought quickly into operational service, it now helps bridge the gap until the next launchings, one in 2017, and the other in 2022 — two and four years late, respectively.
But there are lingering concerns that technical glitches have shortened Suomi’s useful lifetime, perhaps to just three years. Predicting a satellite’s lifetime is like guessing when a light bulb go out. The most likely timing of a gap in coverage is between 2016 and 2018, according to the best official estimates.
That would “threaten life and property,” the independent review team warned.
This report, "Aging Satellite Fleet May Mean Gaps in Storm Forecasts," first appeared in The New York Times.