Suomi-NPP satellite launched October 2011. Photo: NASA

Despite progress in managing the crisis in developing the next generation of climate observing satellites, significant problems continue and there now appears to be a likelihood of gaps in collecting key global climate data. At a recent congressional hearing CSW heard updates from NOAA, NASA, and GAO representatives on the US weather and climate satellite program, which has been fraught with mismanagement, delays, and cost overruns for years.

CSW first reported on this problem in 2007 (see links below), when a ‘re-scoping’ driven by the Defense Department removed key climate sensors from the priorities for new satellites – a development that occurred in the context of the downgrading and deterioration of global climate observing systems during the Bush Administration.

On June 27 CSW attended a hearing on “Continuing Oversight of the Nation’s Weather Satellite Programs: An Update on JPSS and GOES-R” jointly held by the Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. The hearing served as an update on the development of the next generation of key US weather and climate satellites.  Witnesses included:

  • Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Deputy Administrator;
  • Marcus Watkins, Director of NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division; and
  • David Powner, Director for Information Technology Management Issues at the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The hearing webpage contains a briefing charter, witness written testimony, and an archived webcast.

On the continuing threat to space-based global climate data continuity

Just a bit of background on a long and very detailed story:  The federal government initiated the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) in 1994 with the intention of reducing costs and increasing efficiency by merging the civilian and military weather satellite programs.  NPOESS was intended to be the next-generation operational space-based system for providing state-of-the art data for weather forecasting and climate system monitoring. Within NPOESS, NOAA was responsible for satellite operation, the Defense Department was responsible for major acquisition, and NASA was responsible for the development of new technologies.

To continue climate-quality measurements beyond the current generation of NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) research satellites (NASA is not developing a second series of EOS satellites), it was assumed that the NPOESS system would continue, in an operational environment, the mature EOS measurements, which address numerous climate data needs.  NPOESS, as originally configured, would have represented a significant step forward in the nation’s ability to deploy a comprehensive climate observing system. Many key climate variables would be measured for decades.

Originally designed as a suite of six satellites, to be preceded by the launch of a preparatory project satellite to test a new generation of remote-sensing instruments, the NPOESS system included, not only sensors related to near-term weather forecasting, but a set of advanced sensors aimed at collecting high-quality data on climate-related variables needed for long-term research.

Thus, much of the next generation of remote-sensing global climate observations was hitched to a set of satellites to be developed under Defense Department contracts.  This turned out to be a significant problem; rather than having a dedicated climate observing satellite system, the climate science community was tied to an agency that has a primary interest in security-related weather forecasting, with only a subsidiary interest in the needs of climate research.

The NPOESS project experienced multi-billion-dollar cost overruns and long delays in launch schedules – due to a set of technical and management problems that had its roots in the 1990s and built to crisis proportions by 2005.  As a result, NPOESS was subjected to a ‘re-scoping’ by the Pentagon in 2006, a statutory requirement when a defense contract reaches a certain level of cost overrun.  During this process, highest priority was given to the operational capabilities in support of essential measurements related to weather forecasting.  This resulted in a lower priority for climate-focused measurements.

The result of the re-scoping was a decision to reduce the overall number of satellites and eliminate climate sensors from the system.  We reported that this decision by NOAA and the Pentagon to drop climate monitoring sensors would place in grave jeopardy scientists’ future ability to monitor key variables necessary for understanding climate change and its consequences.  A candid joint NASA and NOAA report on the implications of ‘de-manifesting’ of climate sensors from NPOESS, prepared for the Office of Science and Technology Policy but not made public (until we obtained it, delivered it to the Senate and House committees with jurisdiction, to the Associated Press, and posted it), reported that scientists would face major gaps in data that can be collected only from satellites.  “We’re going to start being blinded in our ability to observe the planet,” we told the Associated Press.  “The leaders of the climate science community are ringing the alarm bells on this crisis.”

On the importance of a continuous climate-quality data record, the 2006 NOAA-NASA report said:

Detecting climate change, understanding the associated shifts in specific climate processes, and then projecting the impacts of these changes on the Earth system requires a comprehensive set of consistent measurements made over many decades. Many climate trends are small and require careful analysis of long time series of sufficient length, consistency, and continuity to distinguish between the natural long-term climate variability and any small, persistent climate changes. Interruptions in the climate data records make the resolution of small differences uncertain or even impossible to detect. To confidently detect small climate shifts requires instrument accuracy and stability better than is generally required for weather research and most other scientific uses. For more than thirty years, NASA research-driven missions, such as the EOS, have pioneered remote sensing observations of the Earth’s climate, including parameters such as solar irradiance, the Earth’s radiation budget, ozone vertical profiles, and sea surface height. Maintaining these measurements in an operational environment provides the best opportunity for maintaining the long-term, consistent, and continuous data records needed to understand, monitor, and predict climate variability and change.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in 2007, we called on Congress to hold Bush Administration officials accountable for allowing essential climate sensors to be dropped from the NOAA-DoD next-generation environmental satellite system, even as NASA was foregoing development of a next generation of its Earth Observing System satellites.

There was plenty of responsibility to be spread around for the woes of the climate observing system, and many challenging technological hurdles to be cleared.  But we also saw the way the NPOESS crisis was handled, and the lack of effective follow-through on the crisis by the Bush Administration, including by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as indicative of a pattern of budget-cutting and downgrading of climate science research and observations.  We saw this as arguably a back-door way, through not-so-benign neglect, for the Bush Administration to impede climate science and public understanding of the global warming problem.

Bringing the situation up to date

In 2010 the Obama Administration, seeking to stop the hemorrhaging in the climate observing system and rescue the next generation of remote-sensing capabilities, terminated the NPOESS program and reconfigured the meteorological satellite system with the defense and civilian systems separated. A new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), jointly developed by NASA and NOAA, became the new focus of climate-related remote-sensing observations.

As a critical first step in building the next generation of climate observing satellites and as a bridge between EOS and the JPSS satellites under development, NASA launched the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi-NPP)satellite (formerly known as the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) in October 2011, five years behind the originally scheduled 2006 launch. This satellite has a five-year projected mission duration, through 2016. It serves both as part of the civilian weather forecasting system and is aimed at ensuring continuity of key climate measurements taken by NASA’s Earth Observing System satellites since 2000.  With a payload of five scientific instruments/sensors it is collecting a wide range of land, ocean, and atmospheric measurements and demonstrating technologies for the next generation of operational polar-orbiting environmental satellites.  Suomi-NPP has been in an on-orbit checkout and instrument calibration phase, but has begun to deliver some operational quality data.

Suomi-NPP North America image (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

NASA and NOAA have now transitioned from the NPOESS program and are working collaboratively on the JPSS program. The President’s FY2013 budget proposal to Congress included a lifecycle cost cap of $12.9 billion for the JPSS satellites, through 2028, including funds already spent on the program.  This budget would include the development, launch, operation, and associated ground systems for five satellites:  Suomi-NPP, JPSS-1, JPSS-2 – each carrying five remote-sensing instruments – and two prospective “Free Flyer” satellites that would carry additional sensors.  The missions and payloads of the Free Flyers are yet to be determined.  Independent estimates conducted last year placed the lifecycle cost of the program at $14.6 billion – an overage of $1.7 billion.

The oversight hearing and the looming gap in global climate data   

The JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 satellite development processes remain troubled with budget, schedule, and technical issues. The scheduled JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 launches have been pushed back to March 2017 and December 2022, respectively.  This is many years later than the originally intended NPOESS launches. When the transition to JPSS was announced in 2010, NOAA anticipated launching these satellites in 2015 and 2018. These lengthy and repeated delays now seriously threaten the continuity of global climate data collection.

With the Suomi-NPP satellite having an expected life of only five years – and a possibility it will not last the full five years – and JPSS-1 requiring a period of on-orbit checkout once launched, the GAO projects (hearing testimony, pp. 10-11) a gap in climate data of seventeen months, and potneitally much longer if Suomi-NPP functions for less than five years and/or JPSS-1 experiences any delay in launching and with all sensors calibrated and becoming fully operational.

NOAA reportedly anticipates a climate data gaps of 18-24 months.  The GAO reports that, despite these warnings and projections, NOAA to date has not developed a plan (e.g., by identifying potential other government, commercial, or international satellites that could supplement the data) to mitigate the risk of a gap.

It is in this context that the oversight hearing was held.  In the Science Committee’s hearing charter, NOAA’s highest priorities are given as:

  1. Continuity of observations for weather forecasting.  A gap in the ability to deliver high-quality weather forecasts, including forecasts of extreme events, could have major adverse consequences for the economy, property, and infrastructure, and put lives at risk.
  2. Meeting its obligation not to exceed a $12.9 billion cap for the lifetime of the project.

As with the earlier threat of rollbacks to climate monitoring sensors, dating back to the NPOESS debacle, restoring all planned climate sensor programs ranks below NOAA’s two main goals for JPSS.  In the event of cost overruns, NOAA apparently assigns a lower priority to keeping several of the climate remote-sensing instruments in the JPSS system than to staying within the overall budget.

David Powner, representing the GAO, testified: “The loss of certain censors could cause a break in the over 30-year history of satellite data and would hinder the efforts of climatologists and meteorologists focusing on understanding change in the earth’s ozone coverage and radiation budget.” But aside from Powner’s testimony, very little attention was given to climate censors during the hearing.

The future of the space-based global climate observing system should be at the forefront of the federal government’s considerations – along with weather forecasting, which of course is absolutely essential – and more important than staying within a strict cost cap running out to 2028.  But neither the Administration nor Congress appears to consider the danger to America’s climate sensors and long-term climate monitoring capability as a highest-priority concern.

While Kathryn Sullivan from NOAA (written testimony) and Marcus Watkins from NASA (written testimony) focused on recent steps forward in their testimony, Powner was less optimistic. Apparently, that disconnect has become typical for weather satellite program oversight. “These hearings have a familiar pattern,” Rep. Brad Miller (D-North Carolina) commented.  “Agencies say everything is okay while the GAO reveals that this isn’t the case.”

Discourse between the committee members and the witnesses largely focused on the impending gap in weather forecasting data. It was generally acknowledged that the crisis was an inherited mess rather than the fault of current agency leadership.  Rep. Paul Tonko (D-New York) commented, “It’s the job of the witnesses to get us out of this inherited mess.  These programs are too important for the nation to abandon.”

The witnesses were not in a position to answer questions about the Senate’s current proposal to transfer satellite programs and associated funding from NOAA to NASA, given that the Obama Administration has not yet taken a position on this matter. Committee Chair Ralph Hall (R-Texas) asked, “Will [the transfer] result in cost savings in terms of buying satellites? Will there be strains on management? Will this increase the program’s likelihood of success?”  No official answer, yet.

Predictably, committee members focused on NOAA’s actions to close the potential data gap.  Sullivan pointed out that, while there is no direct substitute for JPSS data, NOAA is in the process of renewing written commitments with its international partners for future aid.  However, Powner reported the GAO’s findings on this topic were more troubling: “If there are viable options from external sources, it could take time to adapt NOAA systems to receive, process, and disseminate the data to its satellite data users. Until NOAA identifies these options and establishes mitigation plans, it may miss opportunities to leverage alternative satellite data sources.”  Sullivan characterized this criticism as “fair,” noting that NOAA needs more clearly laid out plans for correcting the data gap.

In correcting past mismanagement of the satellite program, current NOAA and NASA leadership must contend with an uncertain budget – a factor compounding existing problems.  Jerry McNerny (D-California) acknowledged the panic NOAA must have felt in the budget reduction that was part of the agency’s FY2011 appropriation.  “It’s difficult to maintain continuity of performance,” Sullivan admitted.  Uncertainty of future funding creates a very frustrating climate within the agency, extending to the contractors NOAA hires and the expertise populating the agency.  “If funding is uncertain,” she observed, “the federal government won’t get high quality talent.”

Although funding for JPSS has subsequently been largely restored to the requested level, it appears that NOAA will have to cut back aspects of JPSS to stay under the $12.9 billion lifecycle cap.  A question that remains (and that went largely unanswered in this hearing): if climate-quality-data sensors fall victim to budget cuts, what will be the consequences for climate science and understanding of change in the Earth System? And in the longer term, how might this affect society?

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) noted that the cost of these satellites is “a lot of money, but we experienced very severe weather impacts and dramatic events in 2011.”  It is important to consider how we can expect damages to increase for lack of warning, either because of a data gap or because satellites are under-funded.  “A 10-16% reduction in loss due to sufficient warning would be much greater than the cost of creating this warning with a better functioning satellite,” he noted.

Similarly, the costs associated with maintaining the function of key climate sensors will be felt by future generations living with the reality of global climate disruption. As we reported earlier, the implications of losing these sensors could be grave:  “Critical work on climate change detection, understanding, prediction, and attribution will be curtailed or not possible,” a NOAA presentation reported.  “Critical climate data records will cease.”

This Congress, overly concerned with reducing the federal budget deficit while refusing to increase tax revenues, is allowing crucial public services to erode.  It is not enough that committee members are pushing for JPSS satellites to launch on schedule – to truly meet the needs of the American people, these satellites must support the full set of crucial climate sensors.  It was disappointing to see this problem go relatively unexamined during the oversight hearing.

Colorado and Wyoming Fires as Seen by Suomi NPP. This image from the Suomi NPP satellite shows VIIRS bands 5, 4 and 3 combined for true color, with information from channel 13 delineating hotspots where fires are burning intensely. (Source: NOAA)

Earlier posts:

Internal report to White House on implications of NPOESS climate observations crisis

Key points in NASA-NOAA report to White House science office on NPOESS de-scoping

Rick Piltz testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee

OSTP Director Marburger’s misleading testimony on NPOESS space-based climate observations.

Economic stimulus bill climate change science provisions for NASA and NOAA