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QuikSCAT satellite nearing failure; Congress poised to slash NOAA funding

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:50 PM GMT on October 10, 2009

The QuikSCAT satellite, launched in 1999, provides crucial measurements of surface wind speed and direction over Earth's oceans twice per day. Forecasters world-wide have come to rely on data from QuikSCAT to issue timely warnings and make accurate forecasts of tropical and extratropical storms, wave heights, sea ice, aviation weather, iceberg movement, coral bleaching events, and El Niño. Just one example of QuikSCAT's value (H. Kite-Powell, 2008) is that wind data from QuikSCAT and the resulting improvements to warning and forecast services save the container and bulk shipping industry $135 million annually by reducing their exposure to hurricane force wind conditions in non-tropical storms by 44% over the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Originally expected to last just 2 - 3 years, QuikSCAT is now ten years old, and will be lucky to survive into 2010. NASA and NOAA notified Congress in September that there is a significant chance QuikSCAT will fail in the next few months. According to scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "the mechanism that maintains the constant 18 rpm rotation rate of the antenna that scans Earth's surface has grown steadily worse over the past six months. Engineering telemetry shows that the torque loss due to friction in the bearing system has been increasing at an alarming rate in recent weeks and that if the trend continues, the rotation speed will begin to slow significantly within the next few weeks or months. When that happens, scatterometer calibration and spatial sampling will be affected. Eventually the wind vector data products from QuikSCAT will no longer be reliable for operational forecasting. The timing is not predictable, but forecasters should anticipate loss of the QuikSCAT near-real-time data in the near future."

Figure 1. NASA's QuikSCAT satellite, launched in 1999. Image credit: NASA.

As I argued in a post earlier this year, "The case for a new QuikSCAT satellite", replacing QuikSCAT should be a high priority for Congress. The earliest a replacement satellite could be launched is 2015--if immediate action is taken to procure funding. Losing QuikSCAT is going to make it much more difficult to assess the strength and position of tropical storms over the open Atlantic, where the Hurricane Hunters cannot reach.

Senate vote Tuesday may significantly cut NOAA funding
I urge all of you who value the services provided by the National Weather Service and their parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to contact your two Senators and ask them to vote against the Senator Hutchison (R-TX) Amendment #2666 to the Commerce State Justice Appropriations Act for 2010 H.R. 2847. This amendment will be voted on this Tuesday, October 13, by the Senate, and would cut the NOAA budget by $172 million. The funds would be diverted to the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, to increase its budget by 75%. While I'm sure the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program is a worthy program to support, Congress should find a different way to fund this program. NOAA's total budget is about $4 billion, and the National Weather Service Budget is a little less than $1 billion. The only place where NOAA has the flexibility to absorb the proposed cuts would be in the satellite program. With the QuickSCAT satellite likely to fail in the next few months, and the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM) satellite also nearing its demise, the last thing we should be doing is cutting NOAA's budget in time when our capability to observe the weather from space is suffering from serious degradation.

Here's the language of the bill, and the proposed amendments:

SA 2666. Mrs. HUTCHISON (for herself, Mr. CORNYN, Mr. KYL, and Mr. MCCAIN) submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by her to the bill H.R. 2847, making appropriations for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, and Science, and Related Agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows:

On page 170, between lines 19 and 20, insert the following:


(a) In General.--For an additional amount under the heading ``STATE AND LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ASSISTANCE'' under the heading ``Office of Justice Programs'' under this title, there is appropriated, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, $172,000,000 for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, as authorized by section 241(i)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1231(i)(5)).

(b) Offset.--The total amount appropriated under the heading ``OPERATIONS, RESEARCH, AND FACILITIES'' under the heading ``National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration'' under title I is reduced by $172,000,000.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization has put out a press release with more details.

Quiet in the Atlantic
A tropical wave (92L) that is moving along the northern coast of South America has only a very limited amount of heavy thunderstorms, thanks to interaction with land. There are no threat areas in the Atlantic to discuss, and none of the computer models are calling for tropical storm formation over the next seven days.

Please, Contact your Senators to oppose the proposed NOAA funding cut, and to argue for funding for a new QuikSCAT satellite.

I'll have a new post on Monday.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.