Report warns fewer weather satellites could hinder forecasting

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – A new government-sponsored report warns that the ability of US forecasters could be severely hindered as the number and capability of weather satellites continues to decline.  Tightening budgets have significantly delayed missions to replace old satellites that have been orbiting the Earth for decades.  Other missions to send up new satellites have been scrubbed altogether, says a National Resource Council analysis out Wednesday.

According to the report, the number of planned missions by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has dropped from 23 this year to only 6 by the end of the decade.  That brings the number of satellites monitoring the Earth down from a peak of 110 to fewer than 30 2020.

A similar report was released five years ago, when eight satellites were expected to be in space by 2012.  Only three of the eight have made it into orbit.  Two failed, one was canceled, and the remaining two are not expected to launch until at least next year.

The lack of satellites could create gaps in coverage, and the National Weather Service admits that older satellites need to be replaced.  But that will take time.

"There's a new series of satellites scheduled to be launched, with the first one coming in roughly three years," says Larry Lee with the NWS.  The next generation of National Weather Service satellites will provide higher resolution images to us much more quickly, but won't be launched until 2015.

Today's satellites are capable of much more than simply sending back pictures of the clouds in the atmosphere.  From satellite data we receive information about lightning, moisture and even sea surface temperatures.  The lack of satellite coverage would hardest hit areas with poor radar coverage, and we could see a significant impact in coverage over the oceans.  That could mean a decrease in the ability to track and forecast hurricanes.