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U.S. weather satellites run into budget storm

An artist?s conception of a polar-orbiting meteorological satellite.


There are expiring American satellites orbiting earth and not enough money to replace them.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has designed its next generation of polar-orbiting meteorological satellites to continue the task of watching the weather from above. But the cash-strapped American government is short on funds for the project, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Experts say a gap in service between the aging orbiters and the next generation could weaken forecasting of extreme weather. Gaps in coverage could also compromise long-term climate records.

The closer-orbiting polar satellites provide more detailed images of weather conditions than those offered by geostationary communication satellites that hang in one place relative to the earth and help connect our cellphones and computers. Polar orbiting satellites operated by the United States and others produce data that help predict extreme weather, including tornadoes, floods and droughts, three to five days in advance.

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In February, 2009, the last of the first generation of weather polar-orbiting weather satellites was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Now, with the launch plan for the replacement JPSS pushed back to 2017 by budget woes, NOAA is preparing to launch a spaceraft called the NPP that was only intended for experimental use in preparation for JPSS.

NOAA will receive $382.2-million (U.S.) of the $1-billion (U.S.) it requested for fiscal 2011 and expects to receive a similar amount for 2012.

"What that means is, we're not going to be able to launch to ensure continuity of satellite observations. We're going to have a gap," says Ajay Mehta, NOAA's deputy program manager for JPSS.

Canadian forecasters and climate researchers rely on a number of polar orbiters owned by Europe, the United States and China, said Mike Manore of the Meteorological Services of Canada. "Satellite data from both polar and geostationary satellites are absolutely critical to Environment Canada's weather forecasting operation," he said.

With better technologies would come better forecasts and improved models, says Mr. Manore, adding that Canada intends to update its equipment to use the JPSS system once it's launched.

Ronald Stewart, an extreme weather expert with the University of Manitoba, describes JPSS as technology that will become invaluable as weather patterns become more unpredictable due to climate change. The ability to monitor extreme weather and the conditions that lead up to it become even more important "because standard rules don't apply any more," he said.

The value of richer satellite coverage is illustrated, according to Mr. Mehta, by the "Snowmageddon" storm of 2010 that blanketed much of the American Northeast. Scientists did a simulation in which they removed NOAA data from the afternoon orbit that the JPSS will cover and ended up with a forecast that was off by 50 per cent. At the time, computer models based on satellite information were predicting 20 inches of snow; without information from just one satellite they would have only predicted 10.

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