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Posted at 12:55 PM ET, 12/08/2011

NOAA satellite system funded, but at what cost? Other important programs may suffer

After sounding the alarm with Congressional budget cutters and conducting an extraordinary outreach campaign to garner support, NOAA was ultimately successful in obtaining the majority of increased funding requested in its 2012 budget to keep the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program on track.

Without the funding, NOAA warned that program delays would leave gaps in satellite data coverage in the next 3-5 years compromising medium range forecasts (3-10 days), especially for high impact weather such as winter storms, extreme cold/heat spells, tornado outbreaks, and hurricanes. This would have the effect, NOAA argued, of endangering public safety and diminishing capabilities for disaster preparedness, emergency response and recovery, and protection of critical infrastructure.

But the Congressional authorization for increased funding of JPSS has some unpublicized consequences. Except for a relatively small increase in that budget (compared to the previous continuing resolution), JPSS funding comes “out of hide”, i.e., at the expense of other important NOAA programs, including climate, basic weather/climate research, components of other satellite programs, and fisheries and coastal/ocean resources. It’s not clear (seemingly even within NOAA at this time) how this JPSS “tax” will be spread amongst these programs within the boundaries of a “Rob Peter to Pay Paul” zero sum game.

Possibly the biggest casualty of NOAA’s hard fought, top priority battle to fund JPSS is Congressional denial to provide its FY12 request to fund the replacement of COSMIC, the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere & Climate.

COSMIC is a joint U.S.-Taiwan 6-microsatellite demonstration mission that was launched in April 2006. COSMIC uses Global Positioning System Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) to provide high-resolution vertical profiles of temperature and humidity distributed uniformly around the globe in all weather conditions. Importantly, COSMIC data has higher resolution in the vertical - but lesser horizontal resolution – than JPSS and, unlike JPSS, data coverage and accuracy is not compromised by the presence of clouds and precipitation.

COSMIC data has been shown experimentally to provide significant positive impact on global forecast models and is now incorporated operationally in most global systems, including NOAA’s GFS weather forecast model (along with the observations from polar satellites). However, the COSMIC system is in a state of decline and unlikely to survive more than two years or so. It is believed that observations from COSMIC and polar satellites complement one another (rather than being redundant) such that the positive contribution to forecast accuracy is greater than one or the other system alone.

Another potential casualty of budget constraints was funding for NOAA to convert a satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), initially slated for climate research, to a space weather system able to replace the aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) in providing warnings of impending potentially disastrous solar storms. In the end, Congress approved funding significantly below the amount NOAA requested. Nevertheless, NOAA believes (somehow, to be determined) that it will be able to meet the 2014 target completing refurbishment of DSCOVR. More problematic and still unresolved is whether the yet to be approved Defense Department budget will include the necessary funds for contracting acquisition and preparation of the launch vehicle (rocket) for DSCOVR in this time frame. Stay tuned.

The above is intended only as a succinct summary of the essential elements extracted (with difficulty) from the morass of a seemingly endless verbiage (e.g., congressional hearings, NOAA briefings, Congressional Record, and personal contacts) in the complexities of the federal budget process. A more extended version could become an enlightening (perhaps comical) book on the process, but one I’m not going to write.

Post script, I: Thankfully, I do not now have to write a post on the question of whether JPSS or DSCOVR, if the NOAA budget could only accomodate one, should have received higher priority. JPSS presumably enables improvement in medium range prediction of some extreme weather events, while DSCOVR would be the only system capable of short term warnings of much less frequent but potentially much more disastrous solar storms.

Post script, II: The FY12 Department of Commerce (DOC) budget, which encompasses NOAA - was passed by Congress and signed by the President on November 18 as part of the largely (and surprisingly) unheralded FY12 “minibus” appropriations bill. To date, NOAA has not released a public statement on the outcome of the relevant FY12 budget deliberations.

Related: State of the art NPP weather and climate satellite launched | NASA preparing for Earth-observing satellite launch

By  |  12:55 PM ET, 12/08/2011

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