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Budget Cuts Threaten NOAA's Weather Forecasts


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

As Hurricane Irene rumbled up the Atlantic Coast, forecasters were not sure how much damage it would do. New York City suffered less than expected, while farther north the damage was worse. But at least forecasters were able to predict within a few miles where Irene was going to strike and also when. Most towns and cities had plenty of time to evacuate. Ports and airports were able to send ships and planes to safety.

People had time to do those things thanks to information from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which now has a fresh warning for Americans: don't get too used to such precise forecasts. NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook has been following this story.

Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, why would NOAA be worried about its forecasting capabilities?

SEABROOK: Because of their satellites. NOAA has a handful of weather satellites that fly in what's called low-Earth orbit. And they are critical to scientists being able to get a detailed and accurate picture of the Earth and all of the weather that is going on all the time.

And these satellites, Steve, are getting old. In fact, scientists have some idea of when their end of life might be and they're trying to push that end of life out farther.

INSKEEP: I want to be sure I understand this, Andrea Seabrook, because if I was home over the weekend watching the track of this storm I'm probably watching my local TV weather guy or my network weather person with their fancy satellite maps. That's a private company, that's not NOAA. But are they relying on information from the government?

SEABROOK: Oh, absolutely. In fact, just about every private weather predicting organization - and that's not just your local news - but, you know, the people who run traffic; critical commerce traffic through the oceans. Even the people who run trucking companies and train companies, who are going to the ports and picking up containers that come in from China and other places in the world, have to distribute those throughout the United States. They're all, they're all using weather data that comes from these satellites. And every public institution - the government, NASA, you know, I could think of a million different institutions that might use weather data, and it all comes from NOAA.

And here's the thing: The budget for the satellites to replace the ones that are getting old has been cut, and seriously cut. This year it was cut by more than half. And we're talking about a billion dollar budget that was cut to just over three hundred million and then NOAA scraped together to the point to where they got to about five hundred million dollars, in order to replace these satellites. And that's just a catastrophic cut to that program.

INSKEEP: Well, just in fairness, I mean it's still five hundred million dollars, and the satellites do exist now. Are we in a situation where the satellites might come down at some foreseeable point and they won't have come up with the money yet to replace them?

SEABROOK: Oh, the satellites will have to be replaced within the next few years. In fact, if they don't have something ready, if they don't have these new weather satellites ready to go, then one scientist put it as: You could wake up one day as if you have had kind of a minor stroke. You'd still be able to see the world but your picture would be so occluded by not having this piece of critical information, these satellites, that the world could be very different and it could be much harder to work through.

I mean, these satellites do much more than just predict the weather for your weekend. They do all of that commerce traffic. NOAA makes sure that nautical charts or maps of the oceans and the ports are correct; that the channels are deep enough; that not only can the people in North Carolina get out of the way of Irene and Florida can stay in place, but that the rest of the country knows exactly which winds are coming which way, when. I mean this is ultimately, seriously important data that the United States has come to rely on.

INSKEEP: And I imagine it's going to become something of a political football because we are in the middle of this big debate - very briefly, Andrea - about the size of government, the scale of government and defenders of government might point to something like this.

SEABROOK: Exactly. I mean, NOAA's issue here - their point is that, yes, of course budgets need to be cut. Just about every politician in Washington knows that the budget has to be cut going into the future. But NOAA is saying there are some programs that are worth more than others and the cuts should be made very, very carefully.

INSKEEP: Andrea, thanks very much.

SEABROOK: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.