By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The government's ability to understand and predict hurricanes, drought and climate changes of all kinds is in danger because of deep cuts facing many Earth satellite programs and major delays in launching some of its most important new instruments, a panel of experts has concluded.
The two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences, released yesterday, determined that NASA's earth science budget has declined 30 percent since 2000. It stands to fall further as funding shifts to plans for a manned mission to the moon and Mars. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, has experienced enormous cost overruns and schedule delays with its premier weather and climate mission.
As a result, the panel said, the United States will not have the scientific information it needs in the years ahead to analyze severe storms and changes in Earth's climate unless programs are restored and funding made available.
"NASA's budget has taken a major hit at the same time that NOAA's program has fallen off the rails," said panel co-chairman Berrien Moore III of the University of New Hampshire. "This combination is very, very disturbing, and it's coming at the very time that we need the information most."
NOAA officials announced last week that 2006 was the warmest year on record in the United States -- part of a highly unusual warming trend over several decades that many scientists attribute to greenhouse gases. Some climate experts think that the atmospheric warming could bring more extreme weather -- longer droughts, reduced snowfall and more intense hurricanes such as the ones experienced along the Gulf Coast in 2005.
The budget for earth science programs for NASA and NOAA increased substantially in the 1990s, and that resulted in an unprecedented number of weather- and climate-monitoring missions in the past five years. But the report found that, as the current satellites deteriorate, the number of space-based Earth-observation missions will decline steadily through 2010, as will the number of instruments in space to gather weather, climate and environmental data.
"If things aren't reversed, we will have passed the high-water mark for our Earth observations," said co-chairman Richard Anthes of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "This country should not be headed in this direction. . . . We need to know more, not less, about long-term aspects of climate change, about trends in droughts and hurricanes, about what's happening in terms of fish stocks and deforestation."
Officials from NASA and NOAA said yesterday that they had just received the report, which was jointly commissioned by the two agencies to prioritize their efforts over the next 10 years.
"This first decadal report will be valuable in our strategic planning within our Science Mission Directorate," NASA said in a statement. "NASA supports the Administration's science policies and priorities, including the way forward on Earth observing systems."
NOAA's administrator, retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., added: "We will be working closely with NASA to assess how our two agencies can best address recommendations. . . . Input from the scientific community is critical and this report will help us."
According to the report, NASA invested about $2 billion annually in Earth-monitoring missions from 1996 to 2001, but that figure, when adjusted for inflation, started a decline in 2002 and is projected to be $1.5 billion annually from 2006 through 2010. Since President Bush announced plans in 2004 to return astronauts to the moon and later send them to Mars, many involved with the NASA science program have warned that their efforts are being curtailed, and will be restricted further in the future.
Moore and Anthes said that about $500 million a year is needed to restore NASA's earth science program to health -- essentially a return to the budgets during the Clinton administration.
The problem at NOAA is different, and involves continuing and costly complications with its National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. Initially conceived in the 1990s as the next-generation weather forecasting satellite for NOAA and the Defense Department, it is now three years behind schedule and as much as $3 billion over budget, according to the Government Accountability Office. In addition, the NSC report says, many of the weather and climate instruments that the satellite was supposed to carry have been dropped to keep costs from further increasing.
Putting together a satellite that could serve the needs of NOAA, the Pentagon and to some extent NASA proved to be "a very severe technological challenge," Anthes said. "And when problems developed, there wasn't enough money to fix the problems."
The review, written by the National Research Council of the congressionally chartered academy and released yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, is the first major look at the government's long-term planning for space-based observation of Earth -- a reflection of the growing importance of the field. Almost 100 professionals participated in the priority-setting effort, which the report says was made difficult by "major shocks" regarding funding that came late in the study.
The panel offered many detailed recommendations that together sought to "restore U.S. leadership in earth science and applications and avert the potential collapse of the system of environmental satellites."
The recommendations, as outlined in a briefing document, call for increased spending on the study of ice-sheet and sea-level changes as well as extreme weather and "heat events" to better understand climate change, for restoring and expanding the "capability to observe natural hazards and environmental changes," and for making available promising new measurements that will improve weather forecasting.
The panel also recommends that NOAA restore to two satellite projects "key climate, environmental, and weather observation capabilities" that were dropped for financial reasons.