Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget risks keeping Americans safe from extreme weather

Budget cuts at NOAA threaten climate-monitoring satellite program

A White House memo suggests a 22-percent budget cut. But it hasn’t happened yet. Why the Congressional budget-making process could offer hope for climate monitoring.

MARCH 4, 2017 —Later this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to launch the JPSS-1 satellite. Completing a polar orbit 14 times each day, it will give NOAA an unprecedented amount of infrared and atmospheric data – information that’s necessary to keep weather forecasts, agricultural outlooks, and disaster plans accurate as Earth’s climate warms.

These benefits won’t come cheap. NOAA has budgeted $800 million for JPSS– an abbreviation for Joint Polar Satellite System – this year alone, and projects a nine-digit price tag for the mission each year through the mid-2020s.

But will NOAA be able to afford this satellite?  A White House budget memo obtained by the Washington Post on Friday reveals that the Trump Administration aims to cut NOAA’s budget by 17 percent next fiscal year. That’s in line with an 18 percent cut to the US Commerce Department, which administers NOAA. But the agency’s satellite data division would lose 22 percent of its funding, or $513 million.

“Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget will compromise NOAA’s mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans,” former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told the Washington Post. She added that 90 percent of the information for weather forecasts comes from satellites.

As NOAA administrator from 2009 to 2013, Dr. Lubchenco took part in a major expansion of funding for climate-monitoring capabilities. The proposed cuts to NOAA could be the latest Trump administration break with its predecessor’s environmental policies. Now, Congress needs to decide whether to green-light this shift.

Political changes have grounded Earth-observing satellites before. In the late 1990s, NASA designed a satellite called DSCOVR, or Deep-Space Climate Observatory, with the enthusiastic backing of then-Vice President Al Gore. But in 2001, the satellite’s planned launch was put on hold, and DSCOVR spent more than a decade in storage.

In a 2011 investigation, Popular Science’s Bill Donahue found evidence that politics had sidelined the program: It had become derisively known as “GoreSat,” and one “unnamed NASA informant” claimed that Gore’s successor Vice President Dick Cheney, killed the program. In multiple FOIA requests, NASA failed to provide evidence to the contrary.

The Trump administration has been much clearer about its view of Earth science. In a November 2016 interview with the Guardian, Trump transition team member Bob Walker proposed eliminating NASA’s Earth Science division, explaining that “We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research … Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission.”

In practice, NASA often collaborates with “other agencies,” such as NOAA, in order to pool their funds and combine their unique areas of expertise. Not only would Mr. Walker’s proposal upend this practice, but NOAA’s budget cuts could leave it less able to shoulder the work of NASA’s Earth Science Division – or operate next-generation satellites like JPSS-1.

But the budget-making process could offer hope for both agencies and their satellites. In its first budget, the Obama administration allocated $9 million to refurbish DSCOVR and prepare it for launch, Donahue reported. It finally reached orbit in 2015.

At first glance, today’s Congress might seem unlikely to back more climate research. But for all its capabilities, JPSS-1 doesn’t see red or blue states.

It’s scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and send some of its data to research centers in Colorado, Maryland, New York and Virginia – all of which voted Democratic in 2016. But labs in the Trump-leaning states Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, will also have a role, and the satellite will carry secondary payloads from Massachusetts, Tennessee, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Idaho.


One thought on “Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget risks keeping Americans safe from extreme weather

  1. The Trump administration plans to gut NOAA’s budget by nearly $1 billion. These budget cuts aren’t just “trimming the fat” they’re cutting straight to the bone.

    Critical functions that you and I depend on every day, like our weather satellites, climate research, and coastal management are in jeopardy.
    Our ocean contributes $359 billion to our national economy, and these cuts would have a devastating impact on the seafood, restaurant and tourism industries and local coastal economies. And even more importantly, NOAA keeps our families safe in the event of storms.
    This isn’t just about dollars and cents. It’s about policy decisions that make no sense.

    We rely on NOAA for so many essential services:
    Forecasting and tracking hurricanes
    Protecting endangered marine mammals and wildlife
    Providing the data to predict weather forecasts
    Sharing information with fishermen to make decisions on where, how and when to fish
    Keeping trash off our coastlines and researching solutions to plastic pollution
    Managing Coastal Zones and working with local communities on coastal resilience solutions
    Researching the impacts of climate change on fish stocks

    America relies on NOAA to do essential work ranging from the bottom of the ocean all the way up to the reaches of space. These cuts are a slap in the face to the American economic engine of our ocean and coastal communities.


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