Blind to the threat

In 1994, President Bill Clinton merged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite and a Defense Department meteorological system after concluding they used similar instruments. Known as the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, the joint program to monitor the global climate and earth and space weather was supposed to launch before the existing satellites died to maintain continuity of data, eliminate redundancy and save taxpayer money.

“It looked good on paper,” said Michael Tanner, a senior adviser at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

But more than 15 years later, NPOESS is still grounded, a victim of mismanagement and huge cost overruns that have forced the Pentagon and NOAA to delay or dismantle major parts of the program, threatening the continuity of a more than 30-year data record at NOAA. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated NPOESS would cost about $15 billion over its life — more than double its original $6.5 billion estimate. The Obama administration is now separating it into military and civilian components, like it was before Clinton.

In April, GAO criticized NOAA and the Defense Department for failing to establish plans to restore NPOESS to its full capabilities, warning that failing to do so would translate to data gaps ranging from one to 11 years as soon as 2015.

“It’s all sort of hanging on by a thread, and we need to get these other systems up very soon,” said Jeff Privette, program manager of Climate Data Records at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

In a cinderblock building overlooking the folksy downtown of Asheville, one recent day, Privette began sketching in a spare corner of the whiteboard stretched out on the wall behind his chair. Green marker in hand, he laid out a graph of models predicting the trajectory of climate change.

The lines of each model flared out, forming a triangle to depict the increasing uncertainty of climate estimates. Will the earth’s temperature raise three degrees? Five degrees? As more data is collected from satellites and other instruments, it becomes clearer which predictions are the most accurate, he explained, so policymakers know which forecasts to trust.

“If we lose a satellite system and we’re not able to get back to the same [low level of] uncertainty, now our uncertainty goes to here,” Privette said, drawing a larger bracket. “Guess what? We don’t know which model’s better.”

Minding the Gap

With the failure of critical climate satellites, the United States is forces to search for data elsewhere. When its Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite failed last February, NASA was forced to rely on an aircraft campaign known as Operation IceBridge to bridge the data gap until ICESat-2’s expected launch in 2015.

ICESat, launched in 2003, was the primary satellite for measuring ice sheet thickness in the cryosphere, or the portions of the earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, glaciers and the vast — but shrinking — ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. It was designed to last three years, but like many of NASA’s satellites, it outlasted its life expectancy.

“Since the cryosphere is changing so fast right now, we really need to continue those measurements,” said Dr. Thorsten Markus, head of the cryospheric science branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and ICESat-2 program manager.

But airborne observation cannot substitute for satellites, scientists say. Although IceBridge is equipped with the same data collection instrument as ICESat, it is limited to three narrow flight paths, observing only key regions.

The U.S. may turn to other countries to fill its gaps. Europe’s CryoSat also collects data on ice sheet thickness, though with a less accurate sensor than ICESat. The U.S. also pays for sea ice data from Canada’s RADARSAT-2 commercial satellite.

Who’s in charge?

Despite the fact that ICESat had offered what NASA’s Dr. Thorsten Markus called “unprecedented” data on ice sheet thickness, there was no ICESat-2 waiting in the wings when the first died, leaving the United States improvising to keep an eye on a potentially volatile threat to national security.

But ICESat was a research satellite. Dr. Jack Kaye, research division director at NASA’s Office of Earth Science, said the agency’s responsibility is to develop new technologies, not maintain a continuous data record. That responsibility falls to NOAA, the operational agency.

“We don’t plan for successors,” Kaye said. “As a research agency, we’re typically neither charged nor funded to build successors for the things that we do.”

NOAA and NASA formed a joint working group in 2005 to formalize the collaboration process. Two years later, the agencies laid out a strategic plan to address satellite observation requirements, particularly data continuity — needs largely dependent on future funding that has yet to materialize.

In its latest budget request, the Obama administration is beginning to return funding levels to those set by the Clinton administration, as the National Research Council recommended. NASA’s earth science budget will increase by at least 30 percent from Bush-era funding to about $2 billion in coming years, according to NASA.

Among its other requests, Obama’s proposed budget specifically enables development of ICESat-2 and a replacement for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, two of the missions identified as climate observation priorities by the council.

But the administration now must face a major hurdle: a new Congress with dozens of House Republicans who deny climate change is occurring and appear eager to cut programs associated with it.

In December, House Republicans led by Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner announced plans to scrap a committee created by Democrats in 2007 to investigate the effects of climate change. Republican Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas will take over as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee and has vowed to investigate the Obama administration’s policies on climate change.

As the battle looms in Congress, the scientists wait.

“When you come right down to it, these are usually … policy decisions,” said Ed Kearns, deputy division chief of the Remote Sensing Applications Division at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. “As scientists, we try to make these requirements and concerns known, and then we kind of hope for the best.”

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  1. In search of science leading to the restoration of balance and sustainability……

    Where are the experts? A deafening silence has vanquished science when it really matters. We are witnessing crimes against science and humanity, I suppose.

    Would professionals with appropriate expertise please examine the extant science regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation of Earth? How can this knowledge be used to move the human community from the dangerous and patently unsustainable ‘trajectory’ it is on now to sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises?

    —–Original Message—–
    Sir John Sulston, Chair
    People and the Planet Working Group
    UK Royal Society
    March 31, 2011

    Dear Sir John Sulston:

    Your recent comments regarding the review of research on the human population and its impact on the planet we inhabit by a high level panel of experts give rise to hope for the future of children everywhere. Thanks for all you, the Planet and the People Working Group and the UK Royal Society are doing to protect biodiversity from massive extirpation, the environment from irreversible degradation and the Earth from wanton dissipation of its finite resources by the human species. I am especially appreciative for two quotes from you,

    …… “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized… as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”

    …….”what we want to do is to see the issue of population in the open, dispassionately discussed…. and then we’ll see where it goes.”

    Inasmuch as you and an esteemed group of professionals with appropriate expertise are examining scientific evidence regarding the unbridled increase of absolute global human population numbers, please note there is research that has been summarily dismissed by many too many of our colleagues regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation which I would like to bring to your attention. For the past ten years I have been unsuccessfully attempting to draw attention to certain evidence that to date remains both unchallenged and ignored by virtually every top-rank professional. They appear unable to refute the evidence and simultaneously unwilling to believe it. Their unexpected conspiracy of silence has served to conceal certain research by David Pimentel and Russell Hopfenberg. How else can it be that so many established professionals with adequate expertise act as if they are willfully blind, hysterically deaf and electively mute in the face of scientific evidence of human population dynamics and human overpopulation? The conscious denial of what could somehow be real about the growth of the human population in our time is not doing anything that can be construed as somehow right and good for future human wellbeing and environmental health, I suppose. It appears as if we could be witnesses to the most colossal failure of intellectual honesty, moral courage and nerve in human history.

    Peer-reviewed professional publications, letters to the editor, slideshow presentations et cetera can be found at the following link,

    Thank you for attending to this request for careful, skillful and rigorous scrutiny of research from two outstanding scientists. Please know I am holding onto a ray of hope that the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel is fundamentally flawed; that human population dynamics is different from, not essentially similar to, the population dynamics of other species; and that human population numbers are not primarily a function of an available supply of food necessary for human existence. That would be the best news.

    Sometime soon, I trust, many scientists will speak up with regard to apparently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation the way people in huge numbers in the Mid-East are calling out for democracy now.

    Respectfully yours,

    Steve Salmony

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    Established 2001