Detailed images taken by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites over the last several days enabled weather forecasters to provide a fairly precise picture of just when and where Hurricane Irene was headed and how strong she would be. The satellites also relayed this critical information early enough so that people along the storm's path had days to stock up on food and water and, if necessary, move to higher ground.
"A difference of five or 10 miles per hour in a hurricane can make a difference in as much as a foot of flooding," said Dan Satterfield, a weatherman in Huntsville, Ala. "And every mile of accuracy you can get makes the forecast that much more accurate, allowing you to tell people where to evacuate."
But with the recent decision by Congress to allocate less than half of the billion dollars of funding needed to maintain and upgrade the fleet, officials warn of an upcoming gap in the service relied upon by weather forecasters, as well as the armed forces, search-and-rescue teams, energy companies and climate modelers.
In 2016, NOAA anticipates that the polar-orbiting satellites most critical in forecasting extreme weather events will die out. And without enough money to keep research and construction on track over the next couple of years, Kathryn Sullivan, deputy administrator for NOAA, noted that they will not be ready in time to launch replacements.
"Based just on the current year's budget, we’ve projected that we are pretty well locked in something on the order of a year-long slip," Sullivan told The Huffington Post.
Two basic types of NOAA satellites are currently watching the weather from above: geostationary satellites that appear to hover in place at an elevation of 22,300 miles and polar satellites that orbit north-south from about 540 miles. Sullivan explained how critical these complementing systems were for predictions of extreme weather events.
"When you turn on your TV, or pick up your smart phone, the three- to seven-day weather outlook you see is coming from NOAA," she said, adding that the endangered polar-orbiting satellites are responsible for 93 percent of the data that is fed into her agency's forecast models and then provided to the likes of The Weather Channel and AccuWeather.
So what would happen if this information wasn't included? NOAA recently got a sneak peak by looking at data from the February 2011 blizzard that struck the East Coast.
Researchers reran the same forecast model for "Snowmageddon" without the polar satellite data and compared the result with the forecasts made during the epic snowstorm. In the test with blinded polar satellites, the storm's predicted track was off by tens of miles and snowfall figures fell short by nearly half, according to Sullivan.
"But in the real world, with models properly fed by satellites," she said, "our forecast said 18 to 22 inches and it turned out to be 19. We hit the bulls-eye."
"Think about a world in which you have to cut your confidence in half," added Sullivan, suggesting scenarios in which the public may receive an underestimate of the risk posed by an event and fail to adequately prepare, or even begin to ignore dire forecasts if prior severe weather predictions weren't realized.
The blizzard, like Hurricane Irene, was an ocean-based storm. As Satterfield pointed out in an interview with HuffPost, "we don't have people on the ocean" to report the weather conditions necessary to supply the models.
Orbiting in sync with the earth, geostationary satellites offer a restricted view of the oceans. But thanks to the distances traveled by orbiting satellites -- imagine the stripe-by-stripe trajectory of an orange peel -- they are able to keep close watch of the oceans, covering the entire earth twice a day and providing accurate long-range forecasts. These instruments, which can measure temperature, pressure and other physical and chemical properties, are therefore crucial for protecting the more than half of Americans that live along coastlines prone to extreme weather. Geostationary satellites also have a hard time seeing high latitudes, leaving residents of Alaska and northern Canada to rely even more heavily on polar satellites.
But the geostationary satellites still play a significant role. These cameras "never miss a beat," said Sullivan. They can scan far and wide, and are key in short-term forecasts. NOAA's shrunken budget also threatens the research and development of the next generation of these instruments (GOES-R). As Satterfield noted, U.S. satellite technology is 20 years old and already well behind Europe.
The fiscal year will come to an end in about a month. While it is too early to tell what the budget outcome will be for 2012, Sullivan noted that her agency "remained concerned."
That perspective is shared by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders. As the National Journal reports, John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) were among 14 senators who signed a letter urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to consider the weather satellite program in the 2012 budget. "We are concerned that lack of funding now will bring about unnecessary death and destruction in the future, when there are no accurate multiday forecasts of severe weather," wrote the senators.
"The nation is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather, and this year has been a record-breaker," Jane Lubchenco, administrator for NOAA, told an audience in Denver earlier this month. "With climate change, we are loading the dice in favor of these more severe weather events."
Before Hurricane Irene struck, total 2011 losses had already reached more than $35 billion. Irene is expected to add at least another $3 billion to that figure.
Of course, less preparation -- or a stronger storm -- could have resulted in even greater costs.
Satterfield also emphasized the financial price that would be posed by further NOAA budget cuts. "If the geospatial weather satellites could only see hurricanes," he said, "they would still be worth 100 times what they cost."
Clarification: An earlier version of this story described geostationary satellites as hovering. They are technically orbiting in sync with the earth so that they appear to be hovering.