Weather satellite and scientists could face funding drought despite devastating hurricanes


In November, the first government satellite in the Joint Polar Satellite System series, JPSS-1, an effort of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was launched successfully from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

And it started its orbit just in time. A month later, wildfires have ravaged southern California and arctic cold assailed the Midwest and East Coast just as JPSS-1 instruments began capturing images. In doing so, JPSS-1 advances the capabilities of a constellation of civilian weather monitoring satellites that orbit the earth from pole to pole.

{mosads}The recurrence of extreme weather events is almost certain. Funding for the JPSS program is not. The JPSS program will continue until 2038 – if Congress continues to fund it.

However, the success of a satellite program does not depend solely on successful launches to replace old satellites. Congress must also fund the applied scientific research needed to use the new data and improve weather forecasting in the decades to come. JPSS will help meteorologists monitor the changing state of the atmosphere and oceans, improving predictions of severe weather events.

This is information we need to know. In 2017, the United States experienced 15 weather disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each, at a cumulative cost of more than $25 billion. according to government estimates. This does not include losses caused by three devastating hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria. These costs are still undetermined and will likely increase losses to over $100 billion.

In comparison, the total estimated cost of the JPSS program until 2038 – which covers the design, construction, launch and operation of the program’s satellites – will be $18.8 billion, or less than $500 million per year, on average. This represents less than half of 1% of expected disaster losses this year.

While some may view the JPSS as a major government investment at a time when federal spending is under scrutiny, the program will help mitigate the financial, economic, and human costs of weather disasters. If you think the meteorologist is still wrong now (and that assumption is not valid), the forecast would be worse without JPSS.

Many scientists at American universities have worked to maximize the public benefits of JPSS observations. The JPSS mission is not just about collecting “pretty pictures” of Earth. As striking as the images are, the data must first be converted into useful and actionable information. Scientists oversee this conversion and actively verify that the data is scientifically accurate.

Following the deadly and destructive Hurricane Sandy in 2012, NOAA in partnership with universities to install and operate antennas nationwide that can track JPSS-1 and receive satellite weather data broadcasts. The collected data is sent to NOAA supercomputers which produce numerical weather forecasts, which arrive in the hands of meteorologists a few hours later.

Research now possible with JPSS to improve computer forecasts ultimately helps meteorologists save lives and property by providing advanced warnings. It is complex work with a practical result. The cost to the government of funding one year of applied scientific research at a university is approximately one thousandth of 1% of the total cost of the JPSS program. Cutting funding for this research would therefore emphasize a crucial link between JPSS data and its applications.

Before the next disaster strikes, we owe it to our neighbors to commit to building science and community resilience through adequate funding for JPSS and the university and government scientists who undertake critical weather research and make the mission a success. Let’s not leave JPSS out in the cold during the upcoming credits.

Jordan Gerth is a meteorologist and research associate at the Space Science and Engineering Center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.


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