Imagine the furor that would ensue if Congress let the CIA and Pentagon go “blind” by defunding their next generation of spy satellites. Yet with almost no hue and cry, the United States is at risk of losing some key satellites needed for future research on an issue that both agencies view as critical to national security: climate change.
Last December, a satellite used to monitor ocean plant life went dead—and no one is sure how soon it will be replaced. The loss of its orbiting sensors means scientists can’t track the impact of climate change on the health of the oceans—or the impact of the oceans in turn on the global carbon cycle.
“Monitoring the health of the ocean and its productivity is critical to understanding and managing the ocean’s essential functions and living resources,” the National Academy of Sciences warned in a report issued last week.
“Because the ocean is so vast and difficult for humans to explore,” it continued, “satellite remote sensing of ocean color is currently the only way to observe and monitor the biological state of the surface ocean globally on time scales of days to decades. . . . Continuity of satellite ocean color data and associated climate research products are presently at significant risk for the U.S.”
Meanwhile, an appropriations subcommittee in the House of Representatives voted last week to cut back funding for a key satellite sought by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to gather data on the Earth’s weather and climate, according to Climate Wire.
As a result, “we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today,” warned NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco.
With tornadoes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes and other weather-related disasters on the rise, “not having satellites and their capabilities could spell disaster,” Lubchenco added.
Members of Congress who belittle the prospect of climate change misunderstand how vital Earth-observing capabilities are to millions of Americans. “A gap in satellite coverage could jeopardize everything from agriculture and aviation safety, to the oil and gas industry, to wildfire response and other search and rescue operations,” said Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union.
The budget cuts also mean that future satellite acquisition will be much more expensive because of program delays.