NOAA’s satellites are on the chopping block. Here’s why we need them.
Our eyes in the sky are facing budget cuts
[Update 3/17: The Administration’s budget blueprint is out and it looks like weather forecasting satellites (like GOES and the polar satellites) will still be used in weather forecasting, but it remains unclear what other science programs that use those satellites’ data will still be funded. The DSCOVR satellite—a joint project with NASA—will see its funding cut, along with extensive reductions to NASA’s earth science budget. The general NOAA budget is still facing steep cuts, including the elimination of the Sea Grant program, which funds research across the country. The blueprint is an initial proposal, and further details will be released at a later date. The budget proposal must still pass Congress before it comes into effect. Our original post continues below.]
On Friday, The Washington Post reportedly obtained a memo from within the Trump administration about proposed funding for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The memo outlined steep cuts to several divisions, including the elimination of the $73 million Sea Grant research program, cuts to climate research divisions, and more.
But the biggest cut The Post reported was to the agency’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service—NOAA’s satellite division—which would see its budget cut by 22 percent, or $513 million. The division operates 16 satellites that orbit the Earth at a wide variety of altitudes and positions, gathering data that researchers in both the public and private sector rely on to do their jobs.
The 45th administration has previously proposed deep cuts to NASA’s Earth Sciences division. NOAA and NASA frequently work together to launch satellites capable of monitoring conditions here on Earth. Cutting both programs to the bone would impact not only climate researchers, but the lives of everyday citizens.
Here are 14 things that NOAA’s satellites help monitor, from agriculture to baseball.
They help us see what’s coming.
If you’ve ever checked the news before a big weather event, you’ve already seen NOAA’s satellites in action. While some images of major storms are captured by NASA satellites, it’s NOAA satellites that are tasked with monitoring weather 24/7 as it’s forming, following everything from blue skies to blizzards.. While the NOAA division that is responsible for much of the forecast—the National Weather Service (NWS)—would only see a budgetary cut of about five percent, the NWS frequently relies on data from NOAA satellites to make their forecasts more accurate.
They help other people see what’s coming, too.
The world is a big place. It’s far too large for any one country to monitor all the weather alone. But just focusing on what’s happening inside our national borders isn’t very useful when a Polar Vortex moves down from Canada, or a Hurricane skirts the Bahamas en route to Florida. NOAA’s satellites are part of a global network of countries around the world that cooperate and exchange satellite imagery, dispersing data on ocean temperatures, weather patterns, and more. They even coordinate on responses to natural disasters.
They help farmers.
NOAA satellites don’t just monitor weather. They also monitor agriculture across the country. Data from NOAA satellites is essential in the USDA’s monitoring of plant and crop health. In addition to measuring soil moisture, precipitation, and temperature, NOAA satellites help farmers get information about plant health, vegetation heights, and water supplies (like lake levels) which can help farmers keep their crops healthy, or help them prepare for a bad year.
They give us a better perspective.
NOAA satellites help us get an otherwise impossible perspective on severe weather events. They monitor wildfires from space, helping firefighters get a wider view of whats happening in the inferno they’re fighting on the ground. They also monitor ice conditions in rivers in winter, which can help predict and prevent severe winter floods. Knowing where the ice is and how it’s moving allows officials to warn people downstream before the ice dam breaks.
They’re getting better all the time.
NOAA’s latest satellite, GOES-16, can do things that no other satellite can do. On Monday, NOAA showed off one of the satellite’s most shocking new features—a lightning tracker that allows forecasters to get an even more advanced view of thunderstorms, giving them a heads-up when a storm is intensifying. The satellite enables forecasters to give the public more warning when a serious storm is about to strike.
They help find faster trade routes.
NOAA’s satellites monitor sea ice, which is rapidly thinning. While that’s not great in general, melting in the Arctic does mean that the Northwest passage, a route between Asia and Europe across the Arctic, is slowly opening up. That means faster trade, but only if shipping companies (or cruise lines) know when the sea ice has receded enough for safe travel. NOAA satellites are ready to give captains a heads up.
They save hundreds of lives each year.
In 2016, NOAA satellites helped save 307 lives. The satellites are part of the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) System, a global network that helps pinpoint emergency beacons on land and sea, helping search and rescue operations rescue people stranded just about anywhere on the planet.
They’re helping baseball teams.
Even Major League teams turn to NOAA to play ball. Last winter, an undisclosed team contacted NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service that also oversees satellites. The team was looking for weather data. Even small changes in altitude, humidity, and temperature can change how the ball moves during a game. Sure, it’s a small thing—and not nearly as important as wildfires or storm tracking—but it is the great American pastime.
They can see public health risks before we can.
You can’t necessarily track individual mosquitoes from space. But NOAA can and does track malaria risk using satellites by monitoring vegetation in malaria-prone areas. It can also track the development of algal blooms, which can be toxic to ocean life (and, by extension, to the humans that rely on those fisheries.)
They help keep the lights on.
GOES-16, DSCOVR and the other NOAA satellites aren’t just pointed at the Earth. They’re also watching what’s coming in from space. NOAA is the agency that gives power companies a heads-up if they notice any solar flares or coronal mass ejections streaming off the sun. Solar wind can cause serious issues with power grids on Earth, which is why energy companies rely on NOAA to keep our power-hungry society going strong.
They help us fly safely.
NOAA’s history with flight goes back to the very beginning. Their precursor, the U.S. Weather Bureau, helped the Wright Brothers choose Kitty Hawk as the site for their very first flight. That legacy continues today. Satellites monitor aviation hazards like volcanic ash.
They help us clean up after ourselves.
When the Deepwater Horizon disaster struck in 2010, NOAA’s satellites tracked the oil slick as it spread. Since then, NOAA has continued developing technologies that would make responses to future oil spills even more detailed.
They help us stay hydrated.
While some of the best data on droughts comes from on-the-ground measures of soil moisture, precipitation, and other factors, satellites can help measure the extent of droughts ravaging communities and farmland. NOAA satellites track droughts using multiple measures, including vegetation health.
They help us get the big picture.
The only way to figure out how much the climate is changing is to actually monitor those changes over a long, sustained period of time. NOAA has monitored the Earth from space for decades, observing not only ocean and land temperatures, but also environmental changes like shifting snowpacks, migrating ocean nutrients, the spread of smog-causing aerosols, and rising floodwaters.