The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been running its Wind Profiler Network for 20 years, using more than 30 radar sites to record hourly information on wind conditions from the ground up to 50,000 feet.
In 2004, NOAA officials touted the profiler network in a report as cost-effective and "important for public safety, aviation and wildfire support." Since then, the agency has spent at least $20 million to develop new technology that will ensure the network continues working.
But this year, NOAA has asked Congress to end the program and cut all funding but the $1.8 million needed to replace three profiler sites in Alaska. At a House hearing last month, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco assured lawmakers that the end of the profilers would not degrade severe weather forecasting.
"We believe that we can get similar information through other mechanisms and that eliminating these profilers will not impair our ability to forecast the tornados," she said.
The program is just one of many that have taken a backseat in NOAA's struggle to secure the funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System, which is behind schedule and over budget. Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized NOAA for the ballooning costs of the $12.9 billion program, and Senate appropriators are seeking to hand over the procurement process to NASA (E&E Daily, April 18).
The rising cost of the satellite program -- and increasing political pressure to cut budgets -- has led NOAA officials to pick and choose among its other programs, particularly within the National Weather Service. The White House budget, for example, suggested cutting back on funding for buoys that ensure early detection for tsunamis; both the House and Senate appropriations bills restore that funding.
In the case of the Wind Profiler Network, contractors and the National Weather Service Employees Organization say funding cutbacks could lead to the the loss of millions of dollars of investment and more accurate detection of tornado warnings and severe thunderstorms.
The network was originally built in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of a pilot project. Built to last five years, the unmanned systems are entering 20 years of continuous operation.
But the profilers operate on a similar frequency that is used in some of the European Space Agency's Galileo satellites. Those satellites will launch soon, rendering the profilers all but useless.
NOAA launched a lengthy procurement process in 2004, resulting in the development of new technology. Three systems are ready for installation. But if the agency's budget request is approved, no more will be developed in the near future.
The company developing the system says the effort cannot be easily shelved for later resurrection.
The Weather Service "knows that procuring and maintaining a system like this isn't like buying a Honda and going to AutoZone for the next 20-plus years," said Scott McLaughlin, vice president of meteorological systems at DeTect Inc. The building of each system, he said, requires rigorous testing and the development of detailed documentation to ensure its long lifespan.
NOAA has already invested in the most difficult part of the program, said McLaughlin, whose company developed the system as a subcontractor to Honeywell Technology Solutions. Installing the remaining systems, he argued, is like pressing "the big, red easy button."
McLaughlin estimated that manufacturing and installing the remaining 30 profiler systems would cost about $49 million. But he argued that NOAA would only have to fund the program between $5 million and $6 million annually to ensure that the contractors kept their in-house expertise.
It is unclear what will happen with the profiler program. The Senate appropriations bill does not include funding for the program beyond the Alaska installations, according to Rachel MacKnight, spokeswoman for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
But House appropriators provided $5.9 million for the program in the bill released last week by the House Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee (E&E Daily, April 20).
The subcommittee's top Democrat, Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah, cited the need for accurate forecasting information as tornados and severe weather events become more common. NOAA's proposal to cut funding to the profiler network -- as well as other NWS programs -- is driven by the cost of the JPSS, he said.
"If you didn't have the cost of the satellites, you wouldn't have that proposal," he said in a recent interview.
"The real issue is what we're doing is, since we don't have a bifurcated budget system, we're paying for satellites that are going to have a useful life well beyond the time that we're paying for them. But we pay for them all at once," he added. "It impacts the education programs at NOAA, the oceans stuff, the weather stuff."
McLaughlin put it more succinctly: "If the satellite program catches a cold, everything else is on its deathbed."