29 June 2011
Defunding of NOAA Weather Satellites Means Goodbye To the 7-Day Forecast.
Posted by Dan Satterfield
TV viewers in America are used to seeing the 7- day forecast on the nightly weather report and the accuracy is actually as good for 7 days as it was for three back in 1980. If the polar orbiting satellite program is defunded ( as now proposed by Congress) then forecast accuracy will likely go backwards.
That means a five-day forecast instead of seven and even those five will not be as good as they were. This isn’t just idle talk, the model data proves it. I wrote a post on this several months ago, and below is that post again with some updates. Apparently, one congressman told NOAA to turn on the Weather Channel to get the data (where do you think they get it from!). I cannot fathom how someone so scientifically illiterate gets to be elected to Congress.
Here is the post again:
I rarely pay much attention to federal budget issues, but this issue is on my turf. Having worked around TV-news folks for 31 years, I’m rarely surprised by politics or politicians! You tend to get rather jaded because you end up seeing a lot of crazy things, day in and day out!
That said, this is one I really could not believe. It seems the House of Representatives proposed budget includes no replacement for the NOAA polar orbiting weather satellites. The orbiters up there now are not likely to last much longer, and I suspect the average person has no idea of just how critical they are to the forecasts made each day by private meteorologists like me (and the folks at the National Weather Service and Environment Canada) etc.
First of all, these satellites are not the images you see on most TV weather-casts, they are at a much lower (870 km) altitude and actually have a much better view of storm systems. Most importantly, they have instruments that allow the temperatures and winds in the atmosphere to be measured over wide areas, including the oceans, where very few weather observations exist. Modern forecasting relies very heavily on numerical weather prediction models that simulate the atmosphere out to about 10 days and you must give these models as accurate an initial condition as possible.
In other words, GIGO: garbage in=garbage out.
The number of weather balloon launches each day are nowhere near close enough to give an accurate initial state of the atmosphere, and satellite data is used to analyze the state of the atmosphere at many different levels. This data is automatically included in each model run, and many universities and atmospheric research centers run their own models using the initial conditions produced by NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP).
It’s actually pretty easy to show what the loss of these satellites will do to forecasts. Just go back and run the models without the satellite data and compare the difference between the model runs with the data AND with what actually happened!
NOAA has done just that.
If you are thinking that NOAA will just have to get by with those rawinsonde balloons, you should know that under the current proposed funding, they may have to cut the number of rawinsondes as well. You won’t need to worry about the weather for your trip to Paris though, the European Centre for Medium Range Forecasting (ECMWF) runs what is possibly the most accurate weather model in the world.
Ouch! This is so wrong!! What can the average citizen do to help? Write letters to our representatives?
Don’t forget also that NCEP’s biannual computer/infrastructure upgrade for FY12 isn’t happening. In their words, this means that our operational modeling suite must be “resource neutral” until FY14. Want a higher-resolution NAM or want to assimilate more data? Something else has to be cut.
The ECMWF continues to move toward the weather forecasting of the future — ensemble and probabilistic output, better physics at higher resolution — while we languish and will struggle to swim in place for years (plural!). It’s horrifying to think about how much bigger the disparity might be in a couple years.
I had not heard that! Good grief.
This is shocking news. This technology protects citizens, and now, it’s likely we’ll all be a little less informed to dangerous, hazardous weather. I’m interested to know how the average citizen can help too, much like Amanda.
What will General Aviation do without accurate forecasts. Also, commercial aviation. Some trips are planned days in advance, and the return trip may be a week later. There is so MUCH Federal Govt. waste and “this” is what they decide to cut!!!!!! Time for private sources to take up the slack and get the govt. off our backs. Perhaps this will happen SOON.
and where are the private sources going to get the satellite data? What about the military forecasters?
I just wanted to add that the USGS Landsat program also relies on NCEP data in order to determine cloud cover. We don’t want to waste our time taking pictures if all you will get are images of clouds.
How about all the TV stations that use them PAY for them and not the taxpayers!
When you consider the HUGE operating costs of NOAA and the minimal benefit to the taxpayer it stands that their budget should be cut drastically. The ONLY benefit from NOAA is hurricane tracking. Everything else is predicted more accurately and timely by ground based radar. Just look at how often the weatherman gets it wrong now with NOAA and it compares to pre-NOAA days. NASA can’t even predict launch dates accurately until minutes prior to launch, and that’s all done by ground based radar.
Cut all the wasteful spending by the government. CUT! CUT! CUT!
I keep telling my wife we let too many people vote in this country…
All this could be privately funded by a consortium of news stations around the country and networks. They all kick into a big pot and that funds the satellites. Government has no business decided what to waste our money on.
Yes, that could be done. You would then pay to get a forecast, but not too much because the airlines will need that info, and we can sell it to them for a hefty cost. Won’t cost you a thing, unless of course you need a forecast or want to fly to Vegas. We would make the most out of selling the data to the highest bidder- I wonder who would win, Iran or the U.S. military….
Then there is NASA for shuttle launches….oh, if forgot no money for that anymore…
We could also sell the data to universities for basic research, and that will also not cost you a dime. Unless of course you want to take a class in English or learn something about science. Somehow, I think you are safe on that one…
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Dan, on the screen shot you post:
the “observed” panel shows a bulls eye of >17.5″ of snowfall over the Florida panhandle. Such a snowfall would surely be unprecedented, but alas, it did not happen. I’m guessing this graphic actually compares predicted QPF with observed gauge data. While a scientist may be able to spot this and understand the value of comparing liquid precip, the astute in the general public will probably just be scratching their head wondering why the observations show a 17.5″ snowfall in Florida that never happened. Goofs like this don’t increase the public’s confidence in NOAA, even if they didn’t make any mistakes or misrepresentations. Bloggers must be careful in pulling/interpreting from PowerPoint presentations. I realize you probably just reposted this (as it was on another blog back in March), but please be careful. Posting links to the original sources is always a good idea.
P.S. I would have sent this to you directly, but I couldn’t find your e-mail address anywhere on your blog . . .
You are making the major mistake of assuming the a forecaster believed the guidance and took it at face value. They most certainly do not. The fact that they did not blindly predict something the model was obviously in error on should increase confidence in NOAA. I believe this was a qpf forecast because I remember the day clearly and the NWP models were not forecasting that kind of snowfall in Florida.
The image was from NOAA by the way and not from a blog. I used it (as NOAA did) to illustrate the serious affect on weather prediction that a loss of data from polar orbiting satellites will cause.
The average american likely has no idea how far Europe is ahead of us in both polar orbiting and geostationary weather observing platforms.
You missed my point completely. The “observations” panel (left side) shows the 17.5″ of snow over Florida, not model forecasts. Your overall point on satellites being essential for numerical weather prediction forecasts is well taken (saying there won’t be a 7-day forecast seems hyperbolic, however). But an argument can only be as strong as the data and interpretations it rests on. In this case, one of your supporting visuals has a glaring problem.
A blog entry with very similar content (including those two cases with the exact slides you show) was posted back in March on the Americans for Science blog:
I find it very Interesting that since yesterday they have removed the Snowmaggeddon slides with the misleading titles (‘snowfall’, when it should have said ‘liquid precipitation’). They have removed the misleading graphic from their blog (but in a sneaky way, instead of just issuing a correction notice). Science is supposed to be a self-correcting enterprise, and peer review is part of this. The problem with the blogosphere is that many times bloggers become blinded by the point they are trying to make and use data or visuals which look good, but don’t help their cause when it contains mistakes like this. The public realizes we are all human and everyone makes mistakes. They appreciate it more if we can admit to our mistakes and try to improve, rather than digging into denial.
If you had put your e-mail address anywhere on the page so that I could have contacted you directly, I would have. I generally don’t bother trying to read (and correct) blogs, but since you’re in the AGU blogosphere, I decided to try to get this corrected. In the future, I recommend explicitly citing (with a link) to all external comment and reviewing it carefully in the way a NOAA public relations officer might.
Seems like your building a conspiracy theory out of a simple labeling issue that has nothing to do with the point the graphic was making.
I have no axe to grind and was not trying to build a conspiracy theory. I simply noticed a glaring inconsistency and tried to get it corrected. All you needed to do was post a correction saying that the figure you used fomr somewhere else should be labeled QPF. Since I’ve figured out how to contact you off-line, I’ll e-mail you directly now.
I reckon you’re right Dan, although the ‘conspiracy’ is no more than a distaste over spending money for anything outside Vincent’s closest vicinity, as a guess.
And yes, it’s sad that America is getting so behind, there is a lot of expertise that gets wasted on dumb economic cuts, not helping farmers and those needing good prognosis. It’s like Canada, they have cut down on all weather stations, now getting better reports from the States on local weather than they get from their own weather service. Not because Canadian weather reporters are incompetent, or their climatologists, etc, are. Just because ‘they don’t need to rock the boat’ and really know what’s happening around them, as that would mean environmental concerns that would cost them money instead of allowing them to earn it.
But giving the way USA is steering today? Both may have to look to Europe, or possibly Asia, in the future for real life surveillance of weather and climate. At the same time that the warming gets worse, with droughts, floods elsewhere, and changed seasons for the farmers world wide. And that’s where the food on your table comes from folks, as long as its not all chemicals you eat, that is.
Jonathan, not Vincent.
Yoron and Dan,
As scientists, our job is to make sure we do the best job we can with the tools we have in a way that will further the public good. In this particular instance, I noted a mislabeling on a plot that NOAA provided (snowfall should have said “precipitation” with a note that typically snowfall is 10 times the liquid precipitation amount). As a professional courtesy, I posted a comment so Dan could correct this. All I wanted was to get a correction posted so stumped readers don’t assume that meteorologists don’t know what they’re talking about. Dan says in his comment policy: “If I have made a mistake, I will correct it immediately.” I’m still hoping he will.
In the broader picture, it’s important that mistakes be corrected in science. If science fails to self-correct, then it just becomes another social structure to be manipulated and distrocted, like politics. So when billion dollar satellite programs are on the line, like NPOESS, we should strive to make sure the science justifying these is top-notch (and that the presentation is of a similar quality). To do anything less is to invite criticism. I’ll remind you that just a few years back, the director of the National Hurricane Center lost his job, in part, due to alledgedly overstating the benefits of QuikSCAT.
I work in this field and I care deeply about science funding, and funding for remote sensing. But if the U.S. can’t get a hold on their finances and put itself back on a course towards fiscal sustainability, I fear there will be a lot of starving scientists out there (and a lot of Americans starving in general). We still have it really good compared to scientists in many countries. I’m not saying it couldn’t be better though – science funding needs to be stable, and right now there is so much budgetary uncertainty that some atmospheric scientists are losing their jobs. So let’s leave the political insuations and recriminations behind and fight for the same team – for better science.
Couple of thoughts on this. From what I understand, modern meteorology is largely a reaction to the devastation from the Grest Hurricane of 1938. My question is, has the coming loss in forecasting being told to the Coast Guard, FAA/airline industry, merchant marine, FEMA, local governments (the folks calling for coastal evacuations), NASA, or military? All of those groups need accurate forecasting to make decisions. Second, is the NOAA passed out free (not including taxes…), or is there some one of subscription fee? If no fee, would implementing fees ensure continued accuracy?
I won’t touch the utter lack of technology literacy in our legislative or judicial branches.