WASHINGTON — The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews.
The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts view as almost certain to occur within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the East Coast early next week.
The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the entire planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms about five days ahead.
All this week, forecasters have been relying on such satellites for almost all of the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: explode against the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?
Right on schedule, the five-day models began to agree on the likeliest answer. By Friday afternoon, the storm’s center was predicted to approach Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, with powerful winds, torrential rains and dangerous tides ranging over hundreds of miles.
New York and other states declared emergencies; the Navy ordered ships to sea to avoid damage. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City warned that no matter where or when the storm’s center actually landed, the city would not escape its effects. And from the Carolinas to New England, public safety officials were urgently advising tens of millions of residents to prepare for the worst, including the possibility of historic flooding, power failures and snow.
Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the huge blizzard that hit Washington in 2010.
“We cannot afford to lose any enhancement that allows us to accurately forecast any weather event coming our way," said Craig Craft, commissioner of emergency management for Nassau County, Long Island, where the great hurricane of 1938 killed hundreds.
On Thursday, Craft was seeking more precise forecasts for Sandy and gearing up for possible evacuations of hospitals and nursing homes, as were ordered before Tropical Storm Irene last year. “Without accurate forecasts it is hard to know when to pull that trigger," he said.
Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launch of the next replacement, known as JPSS-1, has slipped to 2017, probably too late to avoid a coverage gap of at least a year.
Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite program’s managers are just beginning to think through alternatives when the gap occurs, but these are unlikely to avoid it.
This summer, three independent reviews of the $13 billion program — by the Commerce Department inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and a team of outside experts — each questioned the cost estimates for the program, criticized the managers for not pinning down the designs and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, along with NASA.
The outside review team, led by A. Thomas Young, an aerospace industry leader, called the management of the program “dysfunctional."
In response, top Commerce and NOAA officials Sept. 18 ordered what they called an urgent restructuring — just the latest overhaul of the troubled program. They streamlined the management, said they would fill key vacancies quickly and demanded immediate reports on how the agency planned to cope with the gap. They have moved quickly to nail down the specific designs of the JPSS-1’s components, many of them already partly built. And they promised to quickly complete a new independent cost estimate to verify the program’s budget.
Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director, said in a statement that the agency’s top priority was to provide timely, accurate forecasts to protect the public, and that it would continue to develop and update plans to cover any potential gap.
The undersecretary of Commerce responsible for NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, issued the memorandum ordering the changes. In it, she wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix “this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems."
“It is a long, sad history," said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council.
The report projected a dismal decline in what has been a crown jewel of modern earth and atmospheric science.
The Joint Polar Satellite System also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk.
But its main satellites are most notable because they put instruments to sense atmospheric moisture, temperature and the like into what is known as the “polar p.m." orbit, a passage from lower altitude that provides sharp and frequent images of global weather patterns. (Other satellites stare continuously at one part of the globe from farther off, for short-term forecasting.)
Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main U.S. computer model tracking Hurricane Sandy.
For years, as the accuracy of this kind of forecasting has steadily improved, NOAA’s p.m. polar satellites have been a crucial player, like the center on a basketball team.
But all the while, despite many warnings, the coverage gap has grown ever more likely.
The department told Congress this summer that it could not come up with any way to launch JPSS-1 any sooner. Kathryn D. Sullivan, assistant secretary of Commerce, said it “will endeavor to maintain the launch date as much as practicable."
The Government Accountability Office, which views the impending gap as “almost certain," has been urging NOAA to come up with alternatives, like leaning on other commercial, military or government satellites for helpful data. But it said it would take a long time and more money to bring any such jury-rigged system running.
For now, the NOAA is running on a stopgap bill that allows it to redirect money from other projects to the polar satellites. In approving it, Congress demanded a plan by next week showing how the agency intended to stay on schedule and within a strict limit — about $900 million a year.
“NOAA does not have a policy to effect consistent and reliable cost estimates," the Commerce inspector general said. The outside review team said it could not tell “if the current $12.9 billion is high, low, or exactly correct."