America's Weather Satellite System Could Soon Become A Lot Worse

Satellite Photo Sandy 11AM Monday

Photo: NY Post Twitpic

As early as Oct. 22, when Hurricane Sandy was just a churning spout of turbulence in the distant Atlantic, the National Hurricane centre in Miami was already warning that it could develop into a storm with potentially devastating impact on the East Coast.One computer model showed Sandy growing into a monster hurricane with a lethal punch, aiming directly for the mid-Atlantic.

You know the rest — the worst-case scenario became reality. Today, that part of the country is reeling from the beating Sandy delivered.

But residents can’t say they didn’t have sufficient time to prepare for the onslaught. They had at least one week.

In places like Somerset County, New Jersey, officials warned on Tuesday of last week that a potential flood could develop if Sandy showed up on the state’s doorstep. They issued alerts asking residents to start getting ready just in case.

By Friday, the models were highly predictive, pointing to a mid-Atlantic hit around Delaware and New Jersey, with forceful winds, rising water and massive tides endangering coastal areas for hundreds of miles. And that’s exactly what happened.

The tireless effort by weather forecasters made a difference. All the work and money that goes into developing and maintaining a first-class meteorological service paid off.

Here’s what you may not know: Advance warnings, made possible by an array of images and information delivered by satellite, could be a thing of the past. Or, almost as bad, they could be less accurate, and less timely, due to a looming gap in our weather eye in the sky.

The reasons are many, but it comes down to this: The satellites with pole-to-pole orbits crossing the equator that forecasters rely on are nearing their life expectancies and neither Congress nor the agencies that run the program, mainly the Department of Commerce, have made adequate preparation for a new generation of sky-rovers. Best estimate is that it may be 2017 before a replacement is launched, too late to avoid a crucial gap of at least one year.

We won’t bore you with the details. Questions over cost estimates, satellite design, unfilled management vacancies, etc. Outside the Beltway, this is called fumbling and incompetence.

The data these satellites deliver is indispensable to the work that goes into preparing accurate forecasts. Without it, forecasters can’t predict how big a storm will be, where it will go (until it’s rattling your windows), and how far its effects could be felt. In other words, they would be half-blind.

That’s a recipe for disaster. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told The New York Times recently that delivering timely and accurate storm forecasts remained a top priority.

That’s little comfort, however, considering that the under secretary of commerce issued a memo calling the weather satellite system “this dysfunctional program that has become a national embarrassment.” Not exactly reassuring.

In natural disasters, the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is spot-on. Government response after the event is crucial, but being prepared is even better.

Quibbling over money or management changes when lives are at stake seems both silly and callous. Florida and every other part of the country at the mercy of windstorms must be able to count on timely and accurate forecasts. We urge Congress and the next president to take this issue seriously.


(c)2012 The Miami Herald

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