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On weather satellites, Congressional outlook should not be clouded

on Wednesday, 09 December 2015. Posted in Letters to the Editor, Opinions

In October, the remnants of Hurricane Patricia -- the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere -- rolled into Texas. Flooding from the hurricane and a second strong storm system with which it merged could yield more than $3 billion in damages. The Lone Star State was the second state to suffer record-breaking floods in October. Earlier in the month, Hurricane Joaquin caused the most severe flooding in South Carolina’s history.

These storms serve as vivid reminders of the havoc that extreme weather can wreak. To minimize such destruction, the United States needs accurate information about a storm’s strength, timing, and potential path. This information comes from weather satellites – and will soon be more accurate thanks to the launch of the first of two “Joint Polar Satellite System” spacecraft in 2017.

Yet Congress hasn’t committed to long-term funding for our global weather satellite program. This doesn’t make sense. One of the most powerful tools in America's weather-monitoring system is the polar-orbiting satellite, which circles the planet 14 times a day at relatively low altitudes and delivers wide-ranging meteorological data. Because of their global perspective – as well as their proximity to the Earth – polar-orbiting satellites vastly improve the accuracy of today’s forecasting models.

They can help predict weather events days in advance. This is especially important for homeland security. Timely warnings enable first responders to better allocate resources and consequently, save more lives. Projections of Hurricane Sandy’s path, for instance, would have been off by hundreds of miles without information from polar-orbiting satellites. More accurate models allowed government officials to better target Sandy evacuation efforts, as well as to identify and make plans around how the weather in the immediate aftermath of the storm would impact recovery operations.

Yet lawmakers have set the stage for a potential gap in weather data down the road. Once the first Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft, known as JPSS-1 launches in 2017, the JPSS-2 will follow four years later. But that will be the end of the launches. And yet last year, the Office of the Inspector General expressed serious concerns about a two-satellite program without backups. Recognizing this fact, President Obama’s FY16 budget requests $380 million for two additional next generation “Polar Follow-On” satellites to follow JPSS.

The Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee provided $135 million -- but the House provided no funding at all. Congress’ reluctance to fund these programs could have catastrophic consequences. For instance, the JPSS and Polar Follow-On satellites promise to shrink a storm’s “cone of uncertainty” – in other words, where and when a storm will strike – by up to 75 percent when compared to weather forecasting systems without this technology.

If the JPSS/ PFO system had been online during 2005’s Hurricane Rita, projections about the storm’s path could have been narrowed by roughly 875 miles. This, in turn, would have made the evacuation effort far more effective and less costly, and non-impact areas could have maintained normal operations. But accurate meteorological data isn’t only important during weather emergencies.

Dozens of industries, from agriculture and fishing to trucking and insurance, depend on weather projections. Today’s budget is understandably constrained. But critical missions – especially ones that touch homeland security – must continue to receive support from the federal government. This article originally appeared in “The Hill.” J. Michael Barrett, a former Naval Officer and Director of Strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council, is currently the Managing Director of The Center for Homeland Security & Resilience. All opinions expressed herein are strictly his own.

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