Experts say that cutting back on satellite programs is a bad idea.
By Bob Berwyn
Warm ocean temperatures, seen illustrated in red, intensify the strength of Hurricane Earl on August 30th, 2010, in the Atlantic Ocean as seen from space. (Photo: NOAA/Getty Images)
Hours before Colorado skiers wake from their dreams of floating through deep powder snow, forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center switch on a bank of computers at their office in Boulder. Many of the screens are streaming images and data from a fleet of satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — winds, temperatures, snowfall — all of which help the snow scientists rate the avalanche danger across the mountains.
The bulletins posted by the CAIC aren’t just important for skiers: They’re critical for the state’s transportation department, responsible for ensuring that millions of dollars’ worth of interstate commerce continues to flow safely across the high mountain passes of the Rockies, and, like so many crucial weather initiatives across the country, they’re now at steep risk under a new proposed budget.
“These data, in real time, are critical to the work we do. Without NOAA we would just be looking out the window to see what the weather is doing,” says CAIC director Ethan Greene, reacting to the news that the Trump administration wants to trim NOAA’s $5.8 billion budget by a quarter, including deep cuts to satellite programs. “We could not produce the high-resolution, short-term forecast products we have without their work.”
Since the possible budget cuts were first reported by the Washington Post, it’s become clear that the pain would be widely felt: Think of the oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest who depend on NOAA science to protect their harvests from ocean acidification, or the Colorado River Basin water managers working to allocate flows to 40 million people, or the Midwest farmers and ranchers eyeing summer forecasts and drought conditions.
“Without NOAA we would just be looking out the window to see what the weather is doing.”
According to the Post, the overall proposed budget cut amounts to 17 percent of NOAA’s budget, with a $513 million hit to the weather satellite division. The planned budget cuts to science and environmental agencies are being justified by the administration as needed to offset a planned increase in military spending that would be about 10 times as much as the amount of funding cut for satellites.
For the sake of comparison, the latest estimated cost for one F-35 fighter jet is about $102 million. Under Donald Trump, the defense budget would increase to $603 billion, more than 100 times as much as the entire NOAA budget — a slice so small that it doesn’t even show up on a federal budget pie chart. Looking at it another way, the taxpayer cost of Trump’s Florida jaunts plus the expense of protecting Trump Tower in New York for a year will probably equal or exceed the proposed cuts to NOAA’s satellite division.
Climate scientists say that any cuts would also have long-term implications that could hinder the country’s ability to prepare for global warming’s costly ramifications. Coastal cities are investing huge sums to prepare for sea level rise, and every inch counts. If the estimates are off by half a foot, it will cost Miami and New York tens of millions of dollars.
Kevin Trenberth, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the proposed cuts are “short-sighted and dangerous,” and that existing monitoring programs are inadequate. “This is potentially devastating to NOAA because it comes on the heels of a series of previous cuts that resulted in major shortfalls in valuable information with regard to the developing El Niño in 2014 and 2015,” he says.
In an age of billion-dollar weather disasters (15 of them happened in 2015), the benefit-to-cost ratio of funds that go to NOAA is huge. “The approach of cutting ‘climate’ based on ideology related to opposition to any hint of climate change is extremely short-sighted as the whole of the Earth system is connected. Indeed the extremes of weather, in terms of drought and wildfire and floods, arise because of climate change,” he says.
The Government Accountability Office has also warned that the country’s weather and climate monitoring capability is at risk unless NOAA and other agencies step up their efforts. In a 2017 report, the GAO warns of a potential satellite gap that would mean “less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events — such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods. Such degraded forecasts and warnings would endanger lives, property, and our nation’s critical infrastructures.” The same report outlined Department of Defense concerns that “a gap in space-based weather monitoring capabilities could affect the planning, execution, and sustainment of U.S. military operations around the world.”
Along with climate and weather research, monitoring is also at risk. Satellites play an increasingly important role in measuring and tracking greenhouse gas concentrations. Pinpointing emissions sources is critical to implementing and enforcing planned greenhouse gas cuts under the Paris climate agreement.
The global accord may not be the first thing on the mind of Colorado River expert Doug Kenney every morning when he wakes up, but the loss of NOAA data would be a blow to efforts to understand how global warming will affect water supplies for 40 million people and a significant slice of the nation’s agriculture.
“Perhaps no sector is more directly impacted by climate change than the water sector, as warming temperatures modify almost every component of the hydrologic cycle. This is not a hypothetical or future challenge; impacts seen today include more extreme events (droughts and floods) and increased water losses to evaporation and longer growing seasons,” says Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School.
“NOAA is the lead federal agency investigating these impacts, developing information and tools helping water managers cope with climate change impacts,” Kenney adds. “From Atlanta to Las Vegas, regional economies hinge on the ability of water managers to adapt to these changes. All of this argues for a greatly intensified effort to better understand our changing climate. To move in the other direction is reckless.”
State efforts to monitor weather and climate would also be affected, says Colorado State climatologist Nolan Doesken.
“The big proposed cuts to the satellite program probably (and I can’t know this for sure) would likely be associated with stopping or delaying future satellite development and deployment, the easiest way to cut big dollars without interfering with current services, but of course jeopardizing the future,” Doesken says. Since the proposed cuts are aimed primarily at research, it could affect Colorado economically directly by costing well-paid jobs, he says. “Even before this budget proposal, employees and contractors of NOAA were very unsettled and administrators were already doing contingency planning.”
“There’s potential for a significant brain-drain,” Trenberth adds. “Already NOAA has lost good people who have retired or moved on elsewhere. This provokes more of the same and the consequences of these actions are irreversible.”
And on a day when snowstorms impeded travel in the Colorado mountains while a 25,000-acre brushfire burned in the northeastern part of the state, television meteorologist Mike Nelson emphasized how important NOAA information is for warning communities of short-term and potentially deadly hazards.
“In Colorado, the weather can be life-threatening every month of the year. Whether it is an avalanche, blizzard, flash flood, softball sized hail or a tornado, the data provided by NOAA is the core of what we provide to our viewers,” he says. “Every TV weathercast uses the latest Nexrad radar, GOES satellite, and the output from NOAA supercomputers for the critical data we need to forecast the … weather in the Rocky Mountain region. The population of Colorado will grow by another million people in the next decade. There are major decisions to be made on how to best plan to use our water resources wisely,” he says.
Congress will have the final say on the budget, so citizens have a chance to make their views heard, according to a blog post by Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a climate analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Please call your Congressperson and tell them to oppose cuts to NOAA’s budget,” she concludes after detailing how NOAA is a national science treasure.