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CLIMATEWIRE: Aging climate satellites 'a real problem,' academy head tells Congress

Climate Wire
Lauren Morello, E&E reporter

Want to know how quickly climate change will warm the Earth or how fast sea levels will rise? Don't rely on a steady stream of data from the United States' aging stable of weather and climate satellites, the president of the National Academy of Sciences told Congress yesterday.

Nineteen of the 20 U.S. satellites now monitoring Earth's environment are now past their predicted lifetimes, NAS president Ralph Cicerone told members of the House Appropriations Committee. He said there were few replacements being prepared.

That leaves the United States in a precarious position, he said. If an older satellite fails before a replacement is launched, the resulting loss of environmental data could hamper efforts to predict future climate change or monitor the effectiveness of policies to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

"We've got a real problem with our satellites," Cicerone said, echoing the conclusions of a recent National Academy of Sciences report that warned that cumulative rounds of budget-cutting had put U.S. Earth science programs "at great risk."

And last week's crash of a NASA satellite designed to track the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide through the atmosphere didn't help, the scientist said.

The $280 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory sank into the ocean near Antarctica after the rocket that was supposed to launch it into space malfunctioned. Scientists had hoped the satellite would help them improve their accounting of CO2 sources and "sinks," including forests and oceans, that pull the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere (ClimateWire, Feb. 25).

"I think a strong case can be made that the instrument should be reproduced as soon as possible," Cicerone said, calling the aborted launch "a tragedy."

And the United States also needs a national plan to monitor climate change, Cicerone added, as Congress considers enacting new federal policies on global warming and the world prepares to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

"Here we are, on the verge of new international agreements, without thinking about how to monitor them," he said. "And we are neglecting climate as an element of national security. We're not getting the information we need. Where are [climate] changes happening, and where are they going to happen?"

'Climate measurements are hanging by a thread'

Meanwhile, University of Michigan scientist Lennard Fisk -- a former NASA associate administrator -- told lawmakers that the space agency isn't the only agency with a hand in the satellite mess.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is responsible for the day-to-day management of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which is designed to provide federal science agencies and the military with weather and climate data. After the program's budget ballooned from $6 billion to $12.5 billion, NOAA and its partner agencies cut costs by eliminating several planned climate sensors and instruments.

"That's a major embarrassment, a disaster," Fisk said. "Climate measurements are hanging on by a thread there."

The satellite issues point to a larger problem, both scientists told lawmakers, arguing that Congress should boost funding for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The two agencies develop and maintain the nation's environmental satellites and conduct much of the federal government's climate science research.

Together, NASA and NOAA received about $1.8 billion in the recent economic stimulus legislation, with much of that money targeted for climate satellites and science programs. Both agencies would see overall budget bumps under the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill the House approved last week. And both appear to fare well in President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget request, though most details of the spending plan have not been released.

But the trick will be sustaining those increases over the next several years, Cicerone and Fisk said. The 2007 National Academy of Sciences report on climate satellites, for example, recommended an increase of at least $500 million per year for NASA's environmental satellite programs.