Monday, July 21, 2008

Satellite cutbacks could leave us blind at the poles

New Scientist – Environment: The union of weather and climate monitoring is not a happy one - and a US attempt at matchmaking means we may miss out on important climate data from the poles. In 1994, the US government decided to replace its separate climate and weather instruments with a fleet of satellites holding both. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System was intended to save money, but by late 2005, it was more than 25 per cent over its $6.5 billion budget. This triggered cutbacks that eliminated two of the six planned satellites and delayed the launch of the first replacement climate instruments by five years until 2013.

The burden of the cuts has fallen heaviest on climate scientists, and if the old instruments fail it will create gaps in data from the poles covering microwave measurements of sea-surface temperature, the hydrological cycle, and sea ice. The marriage was always doomed because weather forecasting and climate research have different needs, according to a report from a US National Research Council panel. In recent years, weather forecasting has taken top priority for many policy-makers. "When push came to shove, the climate research fell off the table," says the panel's head, Antonio Busalacchi of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Now climate scientists want a divorce. Busalacchi recommends a National Climate Service specifically to gather climate data. The Senate is considering that option. Although some climate instruments were restored to the budget this year, the Government Accountability Office warned of a lack of long-term plans for climate research.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), NOAA

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