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NOAA may cancel its participation in a critical satellite program

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After the devastating Moore EF-5 tornado NOAA finally succumbed to political (principally Rep. Frank Wolf) and public pressure to cancel its planned four-day furlough of employees to make up for sequester cuts.

Now, Politico reports, those funds will be found elsewhere — cuts in the satellite program.

Specifically, the proposed cuts would drain the last 2013 funds for a promising U.S.-Taiwan COSMIC-2 satellite program. Such a cut baffled several U.S. forecasters I contacted on Tuesday.

To understand why, it’s worth taking a moment to explain how these new satellites work, and how they have added value to forecasting.

The first generation of six COSMIC satellites (COSMIC-1) was launched in 2006, with the hope of improving both terrestrial and space weather forecasting.

They do so through a technique known as radio occultation (see graphic below), which is based upon the bending of radio waves as they pass through the atmosphere. By measuring the subtle bending of radio waves from a paired GPS satellite, a variety of temperature and humidity measurements can be obtained from through atmosphere.

How radio occultation works. (NCAR)

How radio occultation works. (NCAR)

Such a “vertical profile” of conditions throughout the atmosphere has proven enormously helpful in weather forecasting, perhaps more so than expected.

In this presentation Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said the COSMIC-1 satellites have made “fundamental improvements” in forecast models, and said, “COSMIC 2 offers potential for even more of an impact for terrestrial and space weather forecasts.”

During his presentation Uccellini also showed the graphic below, which attributes a 9 percent reduction in error in the European forecast model to the COSMIC-1 satellites.

Factors that contributed to a reduction in European forecast model errors. (ECMWF)

Factors that contributed to a reduction in European forecast model errors. (ECMWF)

According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, COSMIC-2 seeks to build on this success by replacing the aging fleet with new satellites equipped with enhanced GPS receivers that are able to generate better quality data.

The satellites should also provide a much richer data set with thousands of more data points throughout the atmosphere. The graphic below provides an idea of how much more information will be available for forecasters and computer forecast models.

A fully implemented Cosmic 2 will offer much more data than the existing satellites. (Louis Uccellini)

A fully implemented Cosmic 2 will offer much more data than the existing satellites. (Louis Uccellini)

So what’s the cost of COSMIC-2? It’s estimated 10-year cost is $420 million, of which Taiwan would pay half. But even that’s misleading, says Cliff Mass, a University of Washington meteorologist.

The really silly thing is that Taiwan will pay for half of it, and the Air Force a quarter.  So their contribution is HUGELY leveraged.  The system is proven.  And an expanded COSMIC network could greatly mitigate the loss of a polar orbiter.  Any rational decision-maker would RUN to make this happen.

It’s worth noting that the agency is also constrained by politics. Politico reported:

Last month NOAA proposed to use an estimated $13.7 million from monies appropriated for improved forecasting after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey last year. But this ran into resistance from the Senate Appropriations Committee leadership, and now a second NOAA effort to scrape together about $1.5 million to begin data processing work this year appears to have been lost as well to avoid any furloughs.

Mass noted that after the Moore tragedy NOAA canceled furloughs for all of its employees, when they could have simply cancelled the furloughs for the NWS forecasters, which would have saved most of the money.

A forecaster within NOAA, himself subject to a furlough, called the decision to delay participation in COSMIC-2, which might ultimately lead to its cancellation, a “major mistake.”

“Losing the second generation of that satellite is very dumb,” he said. “You have to improve both the analysis component and computer abilities to make better forecasts. No COSMIC-2 potentially hurts all global models .”

Eric Berger

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