Guest commentary

Last week Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) remarked that while JPSS (Joint Polar Satellite System) is “essential” to the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities, COSMIC-2 (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate), and GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) observations are only “nice to have.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

COSMIC-2 is a crucial element in our national strategy to enhance weather prediction. It will improve global weather analyses, particularly over oceans and polar regions; advance global and regional weather prediction models; aid in the prediction of space weather; and monitor climate change and variability with unprecedented accuracy and precision.

We know about COSMIC-2’s great potential because it is the follow-on mission to the highly successful COSMIC satellites, with a continued partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan. Two constellations, each with six satellites, are planned for launch in 2016 and 2018, respectively. The first constellation will be in an equatorial orbit, which will provide increased observations over the tropics. The second constellation will be in a polar orbit, similar to that of the original COSMIC constellation, and will provide data with global coverage.

In a Washington Post op-ed piece only a couple weeks ago, PlanetiQ’s Anne Miglarese spoke of the importance of mitigating the possible gap in data from aging polar orbiters. Numerous studies have clearly demonstrated that global GPS-RO measurements enable atmospheric sounding instruments onboard the current Suomi NPP and future JPSS satellites to achieve their full potential in delivering those critical atmospheric soundings that are the very foundation of our successful numerical weather prediction models.

Our colleagues at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts showed that COSMIC is a major boost to the quality of their model forecasts, which are among the best in the world. A recent peer-reviewed study by scientists from ECMWF concluded: “GPS-RO is found to have the largest mean influence among satellite observations in the analysis. It is the fourth best satellite system for analysis information content and the second largest satellite contributor…to decreasing the 24 h forecast error.”

It is precisely this combination of GPS-RO (provided by the existing COSMIC-1 fleet of six satellites) and the traditional workhorse imagers and sounders (similar to those that will fly on JPSS and GOES-R) that has provided the longer lead times and more accurate forecasts for extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy and last spring’s tornadic outbreaks in Oklahoma, for example. As an added bonus, GPS-RO is also the method of choice to enable predictions of the ionospheric response to solar flares and the attendant adverse impacts on GPS positioning errors and accessibility that have profound national security and economic implications.

fgsdgf A satellite in Low Earth Orbit measures temperature and water vapor throughout the lower 8 km of the atmosphere by observing the bending of signals from GPS satellites as they travel through the atmosphere. (UCAR)

But it gets better than that! The GPS-RO technology is simple. The sensors are compact and inexpensive to manufacture, and they effectively make use of the existing GPS (and in the future Galileo, Glonass and Beidou) signals to provide global measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower 8 kilometers of the atmosphere where most “weather” occurs. Their small weight, low power requirement, and simple operation make them the ideal ride-share instrument. Consequently the full cost and operation of the 12-satellite COSMIC-2 follow on to the aging COSMIC-1 fleet is a small fraction of the price tag of the JPSS program.

But it still gets better! The major funding is already on the table. Through an international partnership, Taiwan has pledged approximately $100 million to support the costs of construction and deployment of the second six of the twelve COSMIC-2 satellites—provided that the United States, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense, provide roughly an equivalent amount of support to secure the launch of the satellites and develop the ground segment and real-time processing and assimilation of the data in the National Weather Service forecast models. The $6.8 million request for COSMIC-2 in the President’s FY2015 budget request to Congress is the down payment on the U.S. commitment that will ensure the Taiwanese pledge stays on the table.

In her op-ed piece, Miglarese extolled the virtues of a future GPS-RO commercial data-buy by the federal government. We enthusiastically concur—but certainly not at the expense of the second set of COSMIC-2 satellites. If the United States walks away from the Taiwanese pledge of $100 million and opts for a commercial data buy instead, someone else will ultimately be paying that $100 million in securing those essential GPS-RO observations for weather and space weather forecasts. And that someone, in the long run, will be the American taxpayer.

Richard Anthes is the President Emeritus of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), past President of the American Meteorological Society, and Co-Chair of the 2007 National Research Council Decadal Survey on Earth Observations from Space. Thomas Bogdan is the current President of UCAR and the former Director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The views expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not represent any position of the Capital Weather Gang.