Monday, June 04, 2007

Satellite Climate Sensors Reduced

Last week, President Bush appeared to yield some ground on the issue of global warming. He proposed a series of meetings among the major producers of greenhouse gases to discuss long-term plans to reduce emissions. Some interpreted his intervention as an attempt to delay the implementation of existing climate goals, but it came as a rare acknowledgment that a problem even exists.

This week, it seems that things are back to normal. The administration plans to reduce the ability of scientists to monitor the status of the Earth's climate by satellite. Data from satellites has been a major tool for assessing the scope of climate change.

A confidential report to the White House, obtained by The Associated Press, warns that U.S. scientists will soon lose much of their ability to monitor warming from space using a costly and problem-plagued satellite initiative begun more than a decade ago.

Because of technology glitches and a near-doubling in the original $6.5 billion cost, the Defense Department has decided to downsize and launch four satellites paired into two orbits, instead of six satellites and three orbits.

The satellites were intended to gather weather and climate data, replacing existing satellites as they come to the end of their useful lifetimes beginning in the next couple of years.

The reduced system of four satellites will now focus on weather forecasting. Most of the climate instruments needed to collect more precise data over long periods are being eliminated.

Instead, the Pentagon and two partners — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA — will rely on European satellites for most of the climate data.

"Unfortunately, the recent loss of climate sensors ... places the overall climate program in serious jeopardy," NOAA and NASA scientists told the White House in the Dec. 11 report obtained by the AP.

They said they will face major gaps in data that can be collected only from satellites about ice caps and sheets, surface levels of seas and lakes, sizes of glaciers, surface radiation, water vapor, snow cover and atmospheric carbon dioxide.


NASA and NOAA agreed in April to restore sensors that will enable the satellites to map ozone. NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said that would give scientists a better idea of the content and distribution of atmospheric gases.

But seven other separate climate sensors are still being eliminated or substantially downgraded by lower-quality equipment to save money, according to the report to the White House. Most of the satellites, which were scheduled to launch starting next year, have been delayed to between 2013 and 2026.
In this case, it is hard to tell whether the fault lies with planning and execution or with political interference. Given the recent record on climate matters, the latter would not surprise me at all. The House Committee on Science and Technology will be holding hearings on the satellites, so we should find out more in the near future.