Weather Report? Sequestered

Photograph by NASA via Getty Images

Hurricane Irene is seen from space from the International Space Station, as it churns off the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean, in this file photo.

Count your weather forecasts among the possible victims of automatic federal budget cuts set to begin this week.

The cuts would hit two troubled government satellite programs and potentially exacerbate a coverage gap that’s already expected to leave forecasters with a blind spot in orbit by 2017.

Further setbacks to the satellite programs would mean less accurate forecasts of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, a panel put on by the Aerospace Industries Association said today at the Capitol.

“We’re in critical phases of both of the major programs,” said Eric Webster, vice president and director of weather programs and geospatial systems at Exelis Inc., a McLean, Virginia-based maker of satellite instruments. “Any reduction now basically just delays the programs from launch.”

The satellite programs are run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The cuts in discretionary spending known as sequestration scheduled March 1, unless Congress acts to avert them, would result in a two- to three-year launch delay for two so-called geo-stationary satellites, Rebecca Blank, deputy commerce secretary, said this month in a letter to the head of a congressional appropriations committee.

That delay would “increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” she wrote.

Even without factoring in the across-the-board cuts, a polar-orbiting satellite is expected to reach the end of its life before a replacement is ready, leaving the forecasters with a gap as long as 4 ½ years.

With the start of the across-the-board cuts four days away, NASA and NOAA haven’t yet explained exactly how the satellite programs would be affected, Webster said.

“They really haven’t provided very specific guidance into that,” he said after the panel discussion. “So we’re all kind of waiting with bated breath to see what’s going to happen.”

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