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Weather data: A national security priority


Like so many people, I find the images and stories coming out of Boulder, Colorado heartbreaking.  Houses washed away, roads collapsed, and lives lost.

This event is even more devastating when you have a past and present with the city.  For me, it’s where I welcomed my son and spent so many hours hiking with him on my back, my trusted golden retriever, Argos, by my side.  It’s where my mother (an Easterner) made her first trip out west and trusted me when I said it wouldn’t be difficult for her to celebrate her 68th birthday on top of Mount Sanitas (she has since then forgiven me for the 1,300 ft. climb, 6,800 ft. above sea level).

But the present is consumed with worry—a colleague texted last Thursday that she wouldn’t be in touch because she had to evacuate her mountain home on foot; the roads were impassable.   She has since then been rescued by the National Guard and is safe.  Another employee wrote that he and is family are safe, but unable to leave town and concerned about forecasts for more rain.  A long-time colleague and friend, sent photos of a sink hole growing in his front yard.

Worry doesn’t consume all of my space, anger and frustration do.  Will Boulder be just another extreme event, like Hurricane Katrina, like Hurricane Sandy, like the Rim wildfire in California?   Or, will this event provide the tipping point to have our national leaders finally address the critical need to improve our short and long-term forecasting capabilities?

Ironically, much of our national capability in this area resides in Boulder given NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute on Research in Environmental Science, and world-renowned National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Today, our national capabilities are declining, not improving.   In fact, an impending weather data gap has occupied much news over the past year.  In February, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) added “Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data” and “Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks” to its High Risk Series report.  The report notes the potential of a gap in polar satellite data of 17 to 53 months or more between the end of life of the current satellite and any delays in launching or operating the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1).

The report says, “…a satellite data gap would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events, such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods.” Satellites provide over 90 percent of the data that go into our weather forecast models.

We will never be able to prepare and protect ourselves from all of nature’s events, but I could not imagine trying to manage or monitor Colorado’s current crisis without accurate and timely weather forecasts.  For most of us, trying to navigate traffic, thinking about how to send our kids off to school, or how to better manage our homes and businesses given the changing climate is enough to fear a gap in satellite weather data.

To make matters worse, a recent report to NOAA recommends using Chinese satellite data in U.S. weather models.  The United States—the most technologically advanced nation in the world and a leader in weather related technologies—may have to rely on Chinese data for our weather forecasts.   Interestingly, the report describes this potential solution as “a silver bullet.”  Some might say otherwise.

Managing nature’s events and not having accurate and timely satellite weather data is as much a threat to our society as any other national security threat.   As Hurricane Sandy and the Boulder floods have shown, people die, homes are destroyed, infrastructure is damaged, commerce is disrupted, and our spirit is tested.  The only thing that can help the nation better manage these risks is our environmental intelligence infrastructure with our national weather satellites at its core.

For the sake of our fellow citizens in Boulder and those across the nation that each and every day are impacted by weather and the changing climate, its time to treat the decline of our satellite weather capabilities and the need to better respond to climate change as a threat to our national security.

Data gathering for national security purposes is certainly on the minds of Americans these days. It’s time to recognize the critical need for data gathering of a different sort:  weather and long-term forecasting for climate change.  Environmental intelligence should be approached in the same context and made a national security priority.

 Nancy Colleton is president of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. Her views are her own, and do not represent the Capital Weather Gang or The Washington Post.

VIDEO: Receding flood waters in northern Colorado are revealing the extent of the disaster brought by days of historic rain that killed at least eight people.