Weather forecasters bemoan indecision on new satellite system


WASHINGTON — Weather experts don’t usually admit when they’re stumped. After all, they’re in the business of forecasting the future.

But lately, some meteorologists have used the word “baffling” to describe a decision by NOAA and Congress to postpone funding of a new — and relatively cheap — satellite system that could improve a wide range of forecasts, including hurricane tracking.

Known as COSMIC-2, the system is designed to take about 10,000 readings a day of the atmosphere through a network of 12 mini-satellites orbiting above Earth. These readings would enable scientists to track changes in temperature and moisture and, in turn, inform weather forecasters back on Earth.

But so far, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has balked at funding the system, even though about half of the $420 million total cost would be covered by the government of Taiwan.

“It’s kind of baffling,” said Stacey Boland, a NASA engineer who co-wrote a study last year on the state of U.S. satellites that watch Earth.

“You would think that (NOAA) would be rewarding small, efficient programs but instead (COSMIC-2) is in the crosshairs. It’s extremely frustrating.”

Compounding the concern is the state of U.S. observation satellites overall. After reaching a peak of 110 in 2011, the number of NASA and NOAA Earth observation probes is expected to fall to 30 or fewer by 2020 — potentially reversing gains that U.S. meteorologists have made in predicting the weather.

“You try to do more with less but at some point you (just) have less,” said Boland, adding that deploying COSMIC-2 could mitigate that problem. “We’re in a situation where every measurement counts.”

Efforts to launch COSMIC-2 began in earnest three years ago when the U.S. and Taiwan agreed to build the system together. That agreement followed the joint 2006 launch of a similar satellite system, dubbed COSMIC, that uses the same technique to gather atmospheric readings.

It’s a technique only possible in today’s space age. Rather than make their own direct measurements, the cluster of COSMIC satellites work in concert with navigation satellites, including Global Positioning System (GPS) probes.

Like a good NFL cornerback, the COSMIC satellites “intercept” radio signals coming from the GPS satellites. How much these signals “bend” as they pass through the atmosphere — before reaching the COSMIC satellites — can tell scientists a lot about its temperature and moisture levels.

Though successful, the current COSMIC system is two years past its five-year design life, and meteorologists in both countries want it replaced.

“We are living on borrowed life,” said Bill Kuo, director of the COSMIC program at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, an academic hub of U.S. weather studies.

He said Taiwan was enthusiastic but the U.S. has been “dragging its feet” — mostly over financial worries.

A big motivation for Taiwan is improving the ability to predict typhoons, the Asian equivalent of hurricanes.

The COSMIC system has the “proven” capability to “improve typhoon track prediction and severe weather forecast,” wrote officials from NSPO, Taiwan’s space agency, in response to written questions.

But the delay of U.S. funding is worrisome, and Taiwanese officials said they risk losing financial support in their own country if the U.S. doesn’t act quickly. “NSPO has expressed such a concern to NOAA and it (remains) unchanged,” noted the officials.

Taiwanese officials have good reason to be concerned.

NOAA didn’t spend a cent on COSMIC-2 in the past two years, and no money was specified for the program in the initial $5.4 billion NOAA budget proposed by the White House for 2014.

A proposal that would have allowed NOAA to siphon $13.7 million from disaster relief funding to help fund COSMIC-2 — and show U.S. commitment to the project — also was rejected this spring by congressional appropriators on the grounds that NOAA should pay for it through its regular annual budget.