Satellite imagery of the February 2010 snowstorm dubbed "Snowmageddon"
The United States faces a gap in future weather forecasts. From less accurate to untimely predictions, there could be dire consequences for the U.S. population and economy, warned a recent Government Accountability Office report.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System is nearing the end of its lifespan. When decommissioned, NOAA will lose some of the essential weather data provided by the system for between 17 to 53 months, the GAO found. The blind spot could materialize as early as 2014.
“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. Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property and our nation’s critical infrastructures in danger,” said the GAO in its 2013 High Risk Report.
Polar-orbiting satellites are often used to provide data about severe weather. They typically can forecast storms three to five days out. The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) will replace NOAA’s current constellation, but there could be a multi-year degradation of data between the time the current polar-orbiting satellite is decommissioned and when the JPSS is fully functional, the report said.
Polar-orbiting satellites have provided essential data in recent natural disasters, a study by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts found. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, data from polar-orbiting satellites predicted the storm would make landfall in New Jersey five days before it hit. Without that data, forecasts could have shown Sandy swirling harmlessly away into the Atlantic Ocean, the study found.
In February 2010, a major nor’easter — dubbed “Snowmageddon” — sacked the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States with up to three feet of snow. The storm knocked out power and stranded thousands of travelers. Major cities along its path, such as Washington, D.C., were at a standstill. Had polar-orbiting satellite data not been available, weather forecasters would have under predicted the snowfall by more than 10 inches, said Mariel Borowitz, a research analyst at the Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based advocacy group.
“People would not have realized the extent of how that snowstorm would be and would be much less prepared,” said Borowitz. “That data makes a huge difference.”
Weather information providers aren’t completely in the blind without polar-orbiting satellite data, but “forecasts will not be as good as they otherwise could be,” she said.
While NOAA is scrambling to find a solution, industry wants to step in to fill this gap.
Given that there has been an uptick in extreme weather over the past few years, a lack of polar-orbiting satellite data — which can help spot severe weather — could be very dangerous, said Anne Miglarese, president and CEO of PlanetIQ, a Bethesda, Md.-based satellite company.
Executives at the company hope that NOAA will be the first customer for its constellation of 12 low-Earth orbit satellites which could provide some of the government’s weather data.
The company uses a method called GPS radio occultation that collects data on temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity. The system would be able to take readings in a matter of minutes on a global scale, said Miglarese.
The system could collect approximately 12,000 soundings per day, which would equal 5.5 million individual readings of temperature, pressure and water vapor on the ground, said Miglarese.
PlanetIQ’s constellation of satellites wouldn’t fully fill the gap, but teaming up with GeoMetWatch, a North Logan, Utah-based satellite company, could nearly replace the lost polar-orbiting satellite weather data, Miglarese said.
“I think if you put those two programs together, you would have a significant [increase in data],” said Miglarese, who described the companies as “kindred souls” that are not yet formally working together.
GeoMetWatch specializes in advanced sounding technology, said David Crain, the company’s president.
“We’re producing a system that mitigates a need for advanced sounding capabilities. A secondary benefit of our systems is once fully deployed, we would mitigate all types of operational gaps,” said Crain.
The start-up company’s first project is the Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (STORM). A series of hyperspectral sensors that can be part of a satellite’s payload, it would produce data used to create high quality forecasts and predict severe weather.
The company does not need the government to make the initial investment in manufacturing the sensors because it has contracts with some Asian countries. Rather, the company would charge the U.S. government for the amount of data it consumed, Crain said.
The ramifications of losing polar-orbiting satellite data are more than just human safety, but economical as well, said Crain.
“It’s hard to quantify what the value of weather is, but it really has a quantifiable value,” said Crain. “If you’re making economic decisions about rain today or not, there are significant economic consequences.”
Farmers, for example, decide when to harvest crops based on weather patterns. Airlines may decide to cancel or delay flights based on weather data. If that information is faulty, companies can lose money, Crain said.
NOAA seeking private sector innovation should be a no-brainer, he said.
“If we can find ways to deliver some of the data … cheaper than they can procure on their own, then it should be an easy decision,” said Crain.
In June, GeoMetWatch announced that it had entered an agreement with NASA to provide Earth observations and weather data for four years from the first STORM sensor. The sensor would be launched into geostationary orbit on board an AsiaSat spacecraft in 2016. AsiaSat is a commercial communication satellite company based in Hong Kong. The data would be free of charge, but it is not in real time and can only be used for scientific purposes, Crain said.
Despite the private sector’s interest in filling polar-orbiting satellite data, bureaucratic red tape may prevent any commercial solution from coming to fruition, said Borowitz.
Because NOAA has never purchased private sector products for its weather data, there are no procedures in place for it to acquire outside satellites or sensors, she said.
“There are definitely roadblocks. One of the issues right now is the government doesn’t really … have a place for it in its budget,” said Borowitz.
Bill Ostrove, a space systems analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Conn.-based marketing consulting firm, said culturally, industry and government are at odds when it comes to innovation.
“The commercial sector, their goal is do things as quickly as possible, whereas the government wants to move a little slower and investigate its options,” said Ostrove. It’s that ethos — along with red tape — that will likely prevent NOAA from acquiring data or satellites from the commercial sector before the current polar-orbiting satellite is decommissioned, he said.
Miglarese believes that NOAA will eventually turn to the commercial sector for its weather data needs.
“I think this is a very difficult transition for them, but I’m sure that some of the atmospheric data used in the weather forecasts are going to be commercialized. The issue is when. It’s going to happen,” said Miglarese, who spent 10 years working at the agency.
NOAA continues to work on mitigation plans for “any potential gap in satellite coverage,” John Leslie, a public affairs officer for the agency, said in a statement to National Defense. Those plans would be reassessed biannually, he said.
“Our top priority is ensuring NOAA’s National Weather Service is able to maintain the accuracy and timeliness of its forecasts and warnings,” said Leslie, who did not provide additional details on specific mitigation efforts.
If working with industry does not pan out, international cooperation could help the United States receive polar-orbiting satellite data, said Borowitz.
There are already weather data sharing agreements between the United States and Europe.
Under that agreement, the United States provides polar-orbiting weather data for part of the day, and Europe provides it for the rest, Borowitz said. The United States could likely take data from Europe if necessary. China and Russia operate their own polar-orbiting satellites, but their capabilities are not on par with the European and U.S. spacecraft.
The United States could also glean data from research and environmental-observing satellites, Borowitz said.
“[But] none of these options are going to fully replace those capabilities, so there will still be some degradation,” she said.Photo Credit: NOAA, GeoMetWatch