Sequestration could shut off or delay climate and weather data

Correction appended.

For Jesslyn Brown, sequestration could not come at a worse time of the year.

Brown, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Interior Department, heads the Remote Sensing Phenology project, an effort to track changes in vegetation. Springtime is critical for Brown and her colleagues, as plants and crops exit their winter dormancy and the landscape turns from brown to green.

The data culled and organized by the Remote Sensing Phenology staff track the timing of the growing season for vegetation. The information can be used to study invasive species, the diets of wild animals, and the extent and severity of drought, among other applications.

But this April, Brown, along with thousands of federal employees, is awaiting furloughs as the sequester triggers an automatic $1.2 trillion budget cut over 10 years across almost all federal agencies Friday. The freeze in staff and forced time off will delay the delivery of data to academic researchers, scientists and government workers who track changes in the landscape.


"What it means is we're less able to respond to a problem; it might take us a week to resolve that because staff is not here," said Brown, whose budget was cut by 8 percent last year. "Response time will go down, and data sets will be delayed for weeks or months."

Across the administration's scientific agencies, deep cuts are threatening the output of important data for weather outlooks, wildfire risks, drought forecasts and the long-term understanding of climate change. Much of the United States' climate data is generated in programs under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA is an agency under the Commerce Department. The sequester would delay the launch of two new satellites key to predicting hurricane paths, known as geostationary satellites because they stay over one location on the Earth and watch weather systems develop and move. Their launch would be delayed two to three years because of the sequester, according to acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.

Storms provide a cautionary tale

The nation's polar satellite program, which includes satellites that contribute heavily to the accuracy of weather models and also collects long-term climate data, was already in trouble before the sequester. The Government Accountability Office placed it on its high-risk list in mid-February.

GAO had concerns about gaps in coverage of up to 53 months. The existing polar orbiting satellite is expected to deteriorate before the next pair of satellites, slated for launch in 2017 and 2022, get off the ground.

Blank detailed concerns in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Under the sequester, Blank wrote, "significant and costly impacts to NOAA's satellites and other observational programs are also certain."

In 1900, Galveston was the largest city in Texas, a boomtown with a thriving and active port. Then came the hurricane. A Category 4, it slammed into the unsuspecting city with 140-mph winds, killing nearly 8,000 people and leveling the town.

The story of Galveston provides a cautionary tale about the importance of predicting extreme weather, particularly in a warming world where such events are becoming more frequent, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.

"I think we kind of take for granted that we hear warnings when tornadoes are approaching our homes ... or we get our day-to-day weather forecast and forget where it comes from. Underlying all of this is the National Weather Service, and radar, and satellites," said Shepherd.

The cuts frustrate Shepherd, who sees them as likely to cost far more money than they save. "Imagine having a hurricane season without satellites looking at the hurricanes," he said -- an extreme example, but an illustrative one.

While the agency doesn't yet know the specifics of many impending cuts, Blank also said it would "need to curtail maintenance and operations of weather systems such as NEXRAD," the national radar network, which is used to create tornado warnings, among other things.

Worries about time-sensitive data

NOAA's satellite program works in concert with NASA, which develops and launches the devices. On NASA's side, spokesman Steve Cole, of the agency's science division, said NASA expects "very little impact" to its major satellite programs. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. said the agency's science budget would be reduced by $51.1 million under the sequester.

Research commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents a wide range of companies in that industry, including those that develop satellites for the government, projected cuts that cuts affecting the Goddard Space Center would affect more than just the government. The center is responsible for the Earth observation satellites, and its cutbacks could have a ripple effect of reducing Maryland's gross domestic product by $230 million and lead to a reduction of 1,520 contractor jobs in Maryland, the study found.

At an early February meeting in Boston, former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco also expressed frustration with the uncertainty posed by the yo-yo effect of continuous looming sequesters.

"I think most people don't really appreciate how much is riding on good, responsible, timely budget decisions," she said.

Some information from Brown's Remote Sensing Phenology team feeds into the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly map that tracks drought conditions across the United States. The Drought Monitor is a collaborative effort among agencies in NOAA; the Agriculture Department; the Interior Department; the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; state and regional climatologists; and additional state, local and federal experts.

Last year, scientists and policymakers tracked the map intently, week after week, as the country underwent the worst drought since the 1930s Dust Bowl. This spring, there are still strong concerns about lingering drought conditions, said Brown.

"This is extremely time-sensitive data," she said. "The requirement to deliver this information is on Monday. If it's Tuesday or Wednesday, it doesn't work."

Minding the information gaps

Tom Perkins, the water and climate services team leader at the National Water and Climate Center, leads the team that collects snowpack and water availability data for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). With eight staff members short, it has become a struggle to collect and maintain the data needed to complete the snowpack analyses and water supply forecasts that help local planners prepare for water needs. Last year, the budget for the center was slashed by 15 percent.

These gaps in information could jeopardize the research of scientists who use the numbers to track long-term trends in the environment. Some studies takes years to accumulate data.

"As soon as you miss a month's reading or a year's reading, you throw your drought or climate change assessment out the window," said Perkins.

Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, said holes in information can be costly for scientists.

"Any gap in data is damaging for climate studies," she said. "You might misinterpret something as a trend if those data come out and come back in."

For example, said Goddard, NOAA has deployed nearly 70 buoys in the ocean to measure El Niño weather patterns. Past budget cuts have prevented technicians from traveling to the buoys to maintain or repair them. This has resulted in holes in the data map, blank spots in a set, said Goddard.

Perkins' team members, along with the administrators in the states in which they work, must prioritize which sites stay and which go, who gets water data and who doesn't. It's changed the whole dynamic of the operations in his office in Portland, Ore.

"We have a hard time even buying paper, unless we get approval from the national office," he said.

The NRCS measures snow levels in two ways: by snow courses, in which technicians manually measure snowpack, and with a system called SNOTEL, which measures levels with the help of radio signals that bounce off a meteor band in the atmosphere, without human interference.

While SNOTEL has existed only since 1980, the snow course records began in the early 20th century, said Perkins. For researchers and academics studying climate records, an interruption could be devastating.

In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said about 350 of USGS's nearly 8,000 stream gauges could be shut down because of the sequester. These monitor water levels and flow to alert for floods and droughts, and supplement the National Weather Service's river forecast services.

The gauges cost about $16,000 per year to maintain. About one-third of the funding is directly appropriated by Congress, and about half comes from the coffers of state and local partners. The rest comes from other agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, depending on the location of the stream gauge.

Triage with gauges

"Not only does it affect our budget directly, but it also has a ripple effect," said Matthew Larsen, associate director of climate and land-use change at USGS.

States generally decide which gauges will stay and which ones will be discontinued, said Jerad Bales, the chief scientist for water at USGS. The ones used for weather forecasts are a higher priority. Sites that have a long record behind them are also more valuable than newer sites. Many researchers use the stream gauge data to track climate change through the 19th and 20th centuries, and the data allow historical comparisons to model future climate scenarios.

Some industry members find the impending, widespread cuts frustrating, saying they would cost the economy much more than they save.

Bill Gail, chief technology officer of Global Weather Corp. and president-elect of the American Meteorological Society, said his company sells highly accurate weather forecasts to a number of clients. If data collection suffers due to the sequester, so will his forecasts, and his clients will lose money.

For example, Global Weather Corp. sells wind forecasts to 10 percent of the U.S. wind industry, which makes operating decisions based on those forecasts. It also sells temperature forecasts to power companies that use them to make decisions about how much power they need to have available at any given time. If the forecast is for a long hot spell, power companies will know to prepare for increased use of air conditioners, for example.

"We basically make businesses more efficient," said Gail. "I find the sequester sort of ironic, because one of the things we do as a community, with weather information, is we give that information to people that make them more efficient, and then the economy is more productive."

Efficiency, but at a price

While Gail does incorporate data and observations from other countries' systems into the forecasts his company produces, without high-quality data from the U.S. government satellite and observation system, the forecasts would not be as accurate.

Frank Slazer, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industry Association, said the sequester slows the ability of these companies to hire high-quality people and manage projects.

Typically, if one government agency is cutting back, companies might move employees to a project with a different agency. But because the sequester is across the board, it's a "perfect storm," said Slazer, eliminating the company's ability to absorb government cutbacks in this way.

In October 2012, with the earlier January sequester threat looming, Slazer was at a meeting and one of his member companies said it had "300 positions companywide that they were not filling because of the sequester."

When asked whether NOAA could stand to be more efficient, Gail, a businessman as well as a scientist, said that was a hard question to answer, and while some areas may be ripe for efficiencies, the indiscriminate cuts are likely to take a toll.

"Undoubtedly, if [budget cuts] persist, people will get more efficient, but I think the cuts are deep enough that real meat is going to be cut from the bone at the same time, and we're all going to suffer from that," he said. "You get more efficient, but you also lose opportunities and reduce quality."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of buoys the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has deployed to study El Niño patterns. And the budget for the National Water and Climate Center was cut by 15 percent last year.

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