June 23, 2012
As Louisiana settles in for another hurricane season, some words of warning from scientist Heidi Cullen have special interest for those of us who might be in the path of future storms along the Gulf Coast.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Cullen concluded that America’s system of satellites is in decline, which could affect the accuracy of future weather forecasts. That’s a big potential problem when the ability to protect lives and property hinges on getting a clear idea of a hurricane’s speed and direction.
“We have made tremendous progress in the accuracy of our hurricane forecasting
. . . much of it a result of government-owned satellites that were first launched in the 1960s and now provide about 90 percent of the data used by the National Weather Service in its forecasting models,” Cullen noted.
But because of budget constraints, the federal government isn’t on schedule to replace existing satellites as quickly as they are predicted to wear out. One government agency predicted that if present trends continue, there could be at least a one-year gap by 2017 between the time one critical satellite stops working and its replacement begins service.
We’ve already seen the results of poor budget polices regarding space exploration. The United States now has no manned spacecraft capability, and its astronauts must hitch rides to the International Space Station with Russian cosmonauts. That’s because previous presidents and members of Congress, unwilling to see past the next election cycle, trimmed NASA’s budget too drastically.
The same kind of penny-wise and pound-foolish approach seems to be informing government spending on weather satellites. In future years, those of us who live with the threat of hurricanes could bear the brunt of that short-sightedness.