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As Hurricane Sandy barreled toward the Eastern Seaboard, storm trackers relied on a steady stream of data from U.S. government satellites to predict the storm’s path. But that infrastructure is aging rapidly, and many observers worry the U.S.. will face more than a year without crucial satellite coverage. Tech Tuesday explores the science — and politics — behind polar satellites.
- John Cushman Reporter, New York Times
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs Hurricane Sandy tore across the Bahamas, picked up steam over Jamaica and barreled toward the East Coast, forecasters predicted it would hit land around Southern New Jersey. Their models were fueled largely with data collected by satellites orbiting the earth from pole to pole a dozen times a day. These satellites are run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and its core mission is to keep people safe from extreme weather through storm tracking.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut experts say we could face a year or more without this valuable satellite data because of mismanagement, budget problems and the delay in launching replacements for the aging satellites now in orbit. Joining me to examine the role polar satellites play in weather forecasting and what it would mean to lose them is John Cushman. He is a reporter with The New York Times. Jack Cushman, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JOHN "JACK" CUSHMANWell, thank you for having me here.
NNAMDICould you explain what polar satellites do that's different from stationary satellites and how they help with longer-term forecasting?
CUSHMANSure. They are particularly useful for the forecasts, I would say, three to five or even seven days in advance of a storm, and there are a couple of reasons for this. When you put a satellite in a particular kind of polar orbit, it crosses the equator at the same time every day, local time. So a satellite in one of these orbits would pass over the Chesapeake Bay at the same time every day. And in this case, it passes over the equator in the mid-afternoon.
CUSHMANAnd for that reason, it sees the equator, where lots of our weather is generated at the warmest time of the day. Because the earth is turning under these satellites, they capture a picture of the entire planet, unlike a satellite that stares from a fixed orbit, which just looks at one region. And so that's also helpful. And because these orbits are fairly low or relatively low, that means that there's a much higher-resolution picture being taken by these satellites and their many sensors that they carry.
CUSHMANSo for all of these reasons, these are very important satellites. There are quite of few of them in orbit. The Europeans have a satellite that's in a somewhat different orbit. The military has satellites that are in somewhat different orbits. But the PM polar satellite is NOAA's responsibility, and it's a particularly useful tool for making forecasts three to seven days out.
NNAMDIYou mentioned how relatively close they are to the earth. How close is that?
CUSHMANWell, I'm sorry. I don't -- I can't remember the exact number, but it's certainly high altitude. It's just not as high, as far away as a geostationary.
NNAMDIIf you've got questions or comments for us, you can call at 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. Jack, how do forecasters use the satellite information to develop their computer models of the likely path of a storm?
CUSHMANRight. Well, the computer models that are the main tool of weather forecasters require a tremendous amount of data which they then mash up. And the statisticians feed their models with as accurate data as they can provide. And then what they -- they salt it a little bit with uncertainty and -- because they know that their information is not perfect.
CUSHMANAnd then they run the models again and again and again, and they get kind of spaghetti strands. The storm might go this way or that way. And out in the distance, 10 days out, those spaghetti strands lead all over the ocean. Seven days before the storm, the main European model, all its spaghetti strands were heading harmless -- I'm sorry, the main American model, the spaghetti strands were heading harmlessly out to sea.
CUSHMANAnd the main European model, using different math, was starting to warn that the storm might hit shore. So I thought to myself, well, as the satellites give them more data, five to seven days out, we ought to get an answer to this puzzle. Let's do our story now when it's pertinent.
CUSHMANAnd sure enough, right on schedule, late last week, the models began to agree as these new data came in.
NNAMDISo when you did the story, the models had not yet begun to agree.
CUSHMANYeah. I really have to say, I have to confess that I timed this story to land in Saturday's newspaper and on the webpage on Friday because we could tell that by then, the models would be starting to answer the big question.
NNAMDIYou went out on a satellite limb so to speak.
CUSHMANWell, it didn't matter to me which way the storm went. It was still going to -- the models were still going to provide the solution. And, of course, as we can now see, it was very important for the residents of the northeastern United States to be given this warning as the weekend approached that something very significant was definitely coming their way.
NNAMDIYou wrote that polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking Hurricane Sandy and that, for years, as the accuracy of this kind of forecasting has steadily improved, NOAA's PM polar satellites have been a crucial factor almost like the center on a basketball team?
CUSHMANWell, they're that important. If you have a better center, you're going to have a better basketball team. But what I want to make clear is that there are other satellites playing in this game, and that it's the ensemble that has really provided this remarkable increase in forecasting. You know, Kojo, two years ago, we were -- during the winter shoveling out from the snowmageddon storm...
NNAMDIOh yes. I remember it well.
CUSHMAN...and we got about 20 inches of snow up here. And the weather forecasters told us five days in advance that that was going to happen. And, of course, their forecast grew increasingly accurate in those days, but we were able to prepare. The weather service subsequently went back and removed from the models the data that had been provided by these particular satellites, and then they ran their models without that data. And had they put that forecast out, you would have missed 10 inches of snow, and the storm would have been off course by 100 miles from the forecast.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about polar satellites, you can call us at 800-433-8850. When was the last time you were living somewhere you felt people were caught off guard by an incoming storm? Do you think people were adequately prepared for Sandy this week? 800-433-8850. We are facing a gap in coverage as the existing polar satellites near their life expectancy, and the replacements won't launch in time. What would happen to our forecasting abilities in that scenario?
CUSHMANWell, all I can tell you is that it would be comparable to having an injured center on your basketball team. There are some ways that we might be able to mitigate the problem, it would not be simple, and it would not be inexpensive. And the general or the governmental accountability office, as it's now known, says that in their view, it is now almost certain that there will be some gap. The problem is that we don't know when the existing satellites will expire.
CUSHMANTwo of the older ones known as the POES satellite are beyond their life expectancy. And the one that just went up last year, which is named Suomi after a weather satellite expert by that name, it has a few technical problems, and it's not expected to live as long as initially planned. So the best guess as to when these will expire -- and this is like predicting when a light bulb will blow out -- one never really knows.
NNAMDIFor sure it's going to go at some point, but we never know exactly when.
CUSHMANBut the best guess is that the older satellites will go out, degrade gracefully over the next couple of years, that Suomi might last three years, and, unfortunately, because of the delays, the replacement satellite is not scheduled for launching until March of 2017. It does not appear that there's any way to get that launch sooner.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Mark in Gaithersburg, Md. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKYes, Kojo. I'm a Ph.D. scientist who worked for National Institute of Standards and Technology, and I headed a committee back in '87 that was looking at the weather service in NOAA, et cetera. And all these science agencies, both NIST, who has now just had a Nobel Prize winner, et cetera, are buried in the Department of Commerce for some reason. They're not looked to very well. NOAA, at that time, did not have a weather -- had a weather service that essentially had one line around the United States.
MARKAnd if it broke in the middle, it would interrupt the forecasting of the thing. I headed a panel on this thing. And I just find that all of these particular agencies -- all of these agencies should be put together into one operation that is under a science operation that they can look forward to, that you've got a secretary of commerce who's worried about commerce, not about our infrastructure, our scientific center, Kojo.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call, Mark. And that was an issue I thought about. I don't know if Jack Cushman can answer that question. As I was reading your story, I was wondering, why Commerce? Why is NOAA under the Commerce Department?
CUSHMANWell, the government is a complex beast, and it was put together as if from a Lego kit. And there is, in fact, a proposal -- I'm not terribly familiar with it -- from the Obama administration to break up Commerce into various entities. And I think that NOAA would move although probably not to the satisfaction of our listener. I would make a couple of comments. One is that he's absolutely correct that these agencies have been troubled for a long time.
CUSHMANThe undersecretary of commerce, Jane Lubchenco, in her memo that outlined the series of what are now urgent actions to get this program back on track, called this weather satellite program a national embarrassment. She said she's been trying to fix it since she came to office, but I assure you, its history of dysfunction goes back a decade or more. And so it's really sad that something as important, not only to the safety of the public but also for that matter to commerce, has been left to fall apart in this fashion.
NNAMDII want to get into this history of dysfunction a little bit. And, Mark, thank you very much for your call. Let me invite our listeners to join the conversation. How well do you think weather forecast just predict the storms that seem to be hitting us with increasing frequency? 800-433-8850. How would you prioritize federal funding for satellites collecting weather data? You can also go to our website, kojosow.org, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWe mentioned that this comes under the Commerce Department. Why is the time table for replacements lagging? Is it a question of money, management? We got an email from Don, who says, "I would like to know what kind of congressional support has been given to these satellites and more for the future. Or have these been on the chopping block? The storm points out a tremendous need for this type of expertise, and in addition, to ongoing infrastructure across the country."
CUSHMANThose are very good questions, and I'll try to run through them quickly. About 10 years ago, there was an attempt to merge the defense satellites and the civilian satellites for this purpose into a single program. And because you now had NASA, NOAA and the Pentagon all at the helm of the program, they couldn't get their act together. And over five years, the cost doubled and the delay started almost immediately. So the Obama administration broke the program back into two pieces.
CUSHMANThe defense side of it has since been cancelled, and we don't know what's going to happen with that. And the remnant that is in NOAA's hands continued to limp along. Congress did not help. Because of the uncertainty and the delays, Congress took the opportunity in 2011 to make a deep cut in the program for that year. They cut $700 million out of the program because they felt that the money wasn't -- that the agency wasn't ready to spend this money. And that introduced a terrible delay in the program.
CUSHMANAnd finally, the management at this cash-strapped agency was really disorganized. An expert panel that was headed by a former aerospace executive of great repute looked at it over this summer and said this program is dysfunctional and they said, we're using word advisedly. Only 80 percent of the positions have even been filled. They're critical jobs. They're not doing reviews of their cost estimates. And so it's that management dysfunction that's the third ingredient in the mix.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. How would you prioritize federal funding for satellites collecting weather data? Do you think funding for weather satellites and forecasting technology should be a priority? How much of a priority? On to Fred here in Washington, D.C. Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FREDHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My (unintelligible) recognize the need for, you know, for (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIFred, you're breaking up. Allow me to put you on hold and see if you can get into a better location where we can hear you more clearly, Fred. If we can hear you more clearly, then our audience will be able to hear you more clearly. In the meantime, I'll go to Andrew, who is also in Washington, D.C. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREWHi, Kojo. I think as far as priorities are concerned, I think we honestly just need -- I know we're talking about satellites, but I feel like prevention is a bigger aspect here. I mean, reading the weather just gets to tell us how bad the storm is going to be so we can be better prepared for that particular storm. But the satellites aren't going to change the weather.
ANDREWWhy don't we have -- just have better infrastructure in place, you know, to prevent Georgetown from flooding out or Alexandria waterfront or all these other different things, the power lines going down? Like, those are the issues that, you know, if we address those issues, we can find out how bad the storm's going to be, but it actually won't be that bad.
NNAMDIWell, that is not what Jack Cushman has been writing about, that kind of infrastructure. But some would argue, Jack Cushman, that these polar satellites are indeed are a crucial part of our infrastructure.
CUSHMANWell, I would say in a case like this, which is costing us this much money and putting this many lives at risk, we probably want to have belts and suspenders. In the case of the satellites, they provide crucial information for even understanding how our infrastructure should be built. For example, New York City is in the midst of a very detailed consideration of its infrastructure, of its low-lying areas, of its pipelines, its subways to be sure that they are built in a way that can withstand severe weather events and historic weather events.
CUSHMANBut they need to understand what is the level of the ocean going to be 50 years from now before they make these decisions, and the predictions, of course, because of climate change, are that the ocean is going to be rising. And the understanding of that phenomenon is, in turn, reliant on observation satellites.
CUSHMANNot only our weather satellites, but all of our earth satellite observations are in a state of really terrible decline that was documented by a report of the National Research Council in May. And we are losing our ability to understand what Mother Earth is going to be bringing our way over the next 40 to 50 years.
NNAMDIAnd the only way we can build infrastructure properly is if we have a more thorough understanding of what Mother Nature is likely to bring our way, and you're saying that these polar satellites are crucial to that understanding.
CUSHMANNot just these polar satellites, but all of the 60 or more Earth observation satellites, some of whose instruments will go along for a free ride on these polar satellites, which, as it happens, are about the size of a small school bus and have room for many instruments.
NNAMDILet's see if we can get Fred in D.C. on the air again, sounding better. Fred, you're on the air now. Go ahead, please.
FREDHi. Thank you. My comment was really about -- similar to -- same as the previous caller, and that was that I think sometimes we might overprepare ourselves. And, you know, I live in D.C., and my experience with this last hurricane was very minimal. It was pretty much like a normal rainstorm for -- you know, where we live in southwest D.C. So, you know, my concern is that we overprepare ourselves.
FREDWe create a system where everybody is, you know, five days, 10 days out sharing about a particular storm, and it becomes so hyped up. And I certainly think that, you know, we -- there's certainly a role for these types of satellites and for preparation. But my concern is that we go too far, that we're trying to predict things out five, 10 days in advance, whereas, you know, modern-day, you know, society is able to handle things.
FREDAnd if someone's not going to move out for, you know, two or three days of being forewarned of something, they're not going to move at all. And I don't think these weather systems automatically -- they just dump something on a, you know, on a city or the East Coast. There is certainly going to be fair warning with, you know, any type of satellite that currently exists.
NNAMDIJack Cushman, I've heard other people say this, that we are overprepared. The weather forecasters are being too alarmist. It's never as bad as they say it's going to be. What I often wondered, though, is about the other side of that coin. If, in fact, we decide that they are, in fact, hyperventilating and that we don't need to prepare that much, and then it turns out to be really bad, who do we blame then?
CUSHMANWell, I would put the question somewhat differently. This was an enormous storm. Washington, D.C., certainly felt its effects and certainly was prepared for them. We knew that we did not have to evacuate the low-lying parts of Washington, D.C. We knew that we did not have to evacuate Rosslyn. We knew that we did have to evacuate the lower part of Manhattan, and we knew it two days in advance.
CUSHMANAnd to the extent that the people who live there followed the advice of Mayor Bloomberg and moved uptown, they avoided a scene of considerable devastation as you would see if you look at the Rockaway, where we knew that we had to evacuate, and 50 to 80 houses were flooded and burned overnight.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Fred, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we, too, tend to overprepare? Or what weather forecast information do you find most helpful when you prepare for bad weather? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with John Cushman. He's a reporter for The New York Times who's been writing about satellites and storm tracking technology. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Jack Cushman, we got this email from Roxanne. Well, I'll pair it with another email that we got from Beth in D.C. First, Beth: "Our presumptive president, Mitt Romney, has explained that the private sector will take care of all of these sorts of needs as soon as he can," quoting here, "get government out of the way.
NNAMDI"So I'm not sure why we need to have this discussion at all. What do you think our question will be? Is it conceivable for people to be launching private polar satellites to collect weather data?" We got this email from Roxanne: "Why are all of the government weather forecasting-related agencies, especially NOAA, reluctant to avail themselves of private sector technologies being developed that, in some cases, do a better job?
NNAMDI"There are companies doing amazing predictive work such as Naverus, which collects predictive weather data via commercial and private aircraft and is usually more accurate than the National Weather Service. There are private satellite companies that could do this job. One reason the private companies have arisen is that they can do a better job. Why do you think only the government can predict the weather?"
CUSHMANWell, I don't think that only the government can predict the weather, and this is actually a very interesting point. Of course, these satellites are built by the private sector, and some of the problems that exist in these satellites are because of workmanship issues that occur during the manufacturing of the satellites. But there are many companies who are working on alternative solutions that might really help dig us out of this hole.
CUSHMANSo I don't dismiss the private sector at all. However, as Marion Blakey, who's the head of the private sector industry group the Aerospace Industries Association, and who once headed the FAA, said, she once heard a member of Congress ask a NOAA witness, why do we need weather satellites now that we have the weather channel? And, of course, the answer is the weather channel gets its information from the government.
NNAMDIHow do you think this gap in polar satellite coverage will play out? Is there any way to get new satellites into orbit any sooner?
CUSHMANI don't think that there's any practical way to get new satellites into orbit in time to avoid a gap if the existing ones reach the end of their life's time. And the reason is this. Even, for example, the Defense Department, which has two spare satellites in the event that its satellites suddenly die -- these are mission-critical satellites for the military. So they have a couple of spares. But if they were to pop one of these up into the PM polar orbit, you would have to rebuild and reconfigure the ground stations that collect and assemble and transmit all this data because they're not intended for that purpose.
CUSHMANAnd so you would lose something. And the planning process and the shakedown crews, you would lose about a year of time right there. So I don't think that they're likely to park them up in orbit -- they're very expensive -- before the gap occurs. At best, I think when the gap occurs, they will act as quickly as they can to put some alternative into place and to cobble together a cherry-red system.
NNAMDII was about to ask, what's involved in launching a new polar satellite?
CUSHMANWell, these are actually fairly standard launchings. The platform, so to speak, the frame of the satellite is a standard item, and it goes up, if I'm not mistaken, on a Delta rocket. So we know how to do this, although sometimes they don't go quite right. When they put the last satellite up last October, they did a great job of launching it. It went into a very precise orbit, and consequently, it has lots of fuel on board for further maneuvering. And that might mean that it can last a little longer.
CUSHMANUnfortunately, in its development, some of its key infrared sensors that take these miraculous pictures -- now even by starlight, they can take their pictures -- they had vibration problems. And in a finely tuned instrument in outer space that's trying to take an accurate picture, that vibration can be a real problem. Should it worsen, that might limit the lifetime of the satellite.
NNAMDIWhat role does NASA play in launching and operating these polar satellites?
CUSHMANNASA is a partner. They don't manage the program as much as NOAA does. They do handle the launching, and then they hand the bird over to NOAA. Sen. Mikulski of Maryland told me that she was so distressed by this unacceptable situation that she feels that the program ought to be taken away from NOAA and just handed over to NASA.
CUSHMANAnd she thinks that might even save some money. I suspect it might introduce some delay just in terms of disruption to the program as well. The Appropriations Committee decided to do that, but their appropriation bill, like so many appropriation bills, never became a law.
NNAMDIOn to Amiyah (sp?) in Bethesda, Md. Amiyah, your turn.
AMIYAHSo I am surprised by the turn of the discussion because I feel that there was a hurricane coming. The task was pretty well-mapped. The appropriate measures were put into place to safeguard as many people as possible, so I'm just not understanding what's so wrong or so broken about the system. I think that the weather is somewhat unpredictable. And you can predict things to a certain degree of certainty, but there is no way, ever, that we'll be able to capture the exact path of a hurricane.
NNAMDIWell, Amiyah, allow me to interrupt because the point that Jack Cushman and his article seem to be making is that the system is working very well right now but that we are looking at a possible gap between how the system is working now and how it will be working between now and the year 2017. I'll let him explain further.
CUSHMANThat's right. I mean, this storm is a real illustration of how well these satellites work, but without the satellites -- and GAO says that a gap in coverage by these satellites is almost certain to occur some time in the next three or four years. If a storm like this came along, it would be much harder to fine-tune the forecast with the degree of accuracy that we just saw done over the past week.
NNAMDIAnd, Amiyah, what we're having this conversation about is how to possibly close that gap. You with us?
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call. We move on to Mike in Manassas. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEThanks. I guess I would agree with the previous caller and disagree with a couple callers back about being overprepared. I don't think the people in New Jersey would have agreed with that caller, you know, where Sandy landed. I think we took the appropriate precautions. And I think I'd like to put in a nice vote for the models.
MIKEI think those models -- although as your guest points out, they're not perfect -- it just amazes me how accurate they can be five, seven days out. And I don't think we can afford to be without them. I'm just wondering if there is somebody we could contact to put our two cents with and to try to get -- make sure if we can close -- if any citizens can help close that gap.
CUSHMANWell, I think citizen involvement and public policy is a very important thing, which is to be encouraged. As a journalist, it's not up to me to advise people what to do but rather to provide them the information that will help them make their own decisions about the choices that we face.
NNAMDIHow many -- and, by the way, thank you for your call, Mike. How many satellites are functioning now? And what's the replacement schedule?
CUSHMANLet's see. In this polar PM orbit that is the one of most concern, there are a couple of pole satellites. They were launched years ago, and they are aging gracefully. But they can't be expected to last forever. There is a Suomi satellite, a new model with excellent instruments that's just started to provide operational data. It was supposed to be a test pad to avoid risk, but they find they need it.
CUSHMANSo they're using it operationally. It launched a year ago. It was originally to last about five to seven years, but the concern at NASA was that because of workmanship issues, it might only last three years. The next, JPSS, the Joint Polar Satellite System, is to launch in March of 2017, followed by another one several years later.
NNAMDIOn to Dorothy in Dayton, Md. Dorothy, your turn.
DOROTHYYes, sir. Hi. I wanted to weigh on the side of being very grateful about all the warning. I think that a lot of the people that are calling in saying we're overprepared are probably living in major urban areas, people who got -- the man who called in from D.C. I was out in the country in a 100-year-old farm house, and I got caught in the derecho with nothing. In a -- out in rural areas, when you lose your power, you lose your connection with your well. There is no water. There is no heat.
DOROTHYAnd a lot of people really need the ample time to prepare. And this time, I have water, and I have a camp stove and things all set up. But unless you're in a major urban area, you really appreciate the time to get ready for something like this. And I think it's incredible that they did know exactly where it was going to go and how the water would rise. And I think that information is very, very valuable.
NNAMDIYou're correct. At the end of June, the derecho struck very swiftly, and a lot of people were not quite prepared for it, Dorothy. So thank you for your call. On to Una in Cabin John, Md. Hi, Una.
UNAHi. How are you? It's Una.
UNAAnyway, I know that you're talking about things in kind of a macro level. I just turned the radio on in between what you had already gotten underway. My -- about preparation, you know, there is no way at the derecho, whatever.
UNADerecho. We were six days without power. And how could I have been prepared to -- talk about overpreparing. It's not possible. How could I have been prepared to tell my kids their gerbil died of a heart attack in the heat? How do you prepare for that or prepare them for that matter? That's not a macro. It's a micro.
NNAMDIYou are exactly right. Could you talk a little bit about how polar satellites contribute to our understanding of climate change beyond specific storm systems? 'Cause you mentioned that earlier in terms of preparing infrastructure for the future.
CUSHMANYes. Indeed. There are some instruments aboard this satellite that are along for the ride, so to speak. They're not for the use in the three to five day weather forecast. But they -- and satellites that are being managed within the same program called free flyers are studying atmospheric dynamics, studying the surface temperatures, studying the absorption and radiation of the sun's energy.
CUSHMANAnd the -- our understanding of climate systems and our increasing certainty that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is causing the climate to warm steadily and the oceans to rise inevitably, our understanding of this is informed by years of increasingly sophisticated collection of data. If these satellites are not putting to orbit or if to save money, thus the instruments are taken off, then we will face gaps in that kind of data as well.
NNAMDIJohn Cushman is a reporter with The New York Times. He's been writing about satellites and storm-tracking technology. Jack, thank you so much for joining us.
CUSHMANIt's been a great pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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