Blind to the threat

By Emmarie Huetteman
Medill National Security Reporting Project

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Shortly after liftoff in February 2009, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory — or what was left after it re-entered the atmosphere — crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica, unable to reach orbit due to a faulty shield. A $250 million investment had become scrap metal on the ocean floor.

If the launch had been successful, OCO would have been the first satellite dedicated to measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and tracking emission reduction efforts, offering crucial insight into the earth’s changing climate. This information is needed not only by scientists monitoring the environment but also federal officials struggling to understand rising threats of those climate changes to national security.

“Here’s a key variable for understanding climate change, the only satellite in the world that will do the kind of global collection we need, [and it] crashes,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of an influential report on climate observation. “And we haven’t thought about how to replace it.”

An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory. (Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA)

The short, unproductive life of OCO — and the lack of a backup plan — marked another chapter in the long-running story of the nation’s teetering climate observation system. For two decades, the U.S. constellation of earth science satellites has been beset by competing priorities, shrinking budgets and mismanagement, even as intelligence and military officials express serious concerns about the national security threats posed by climate change and the need for accurate data to help assess those threats.

In a world where the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica is intact one day and collapses into the sea the next, scientists say the need for continuous, reliable satellite observation is vital. It enables more accurate projections, allowing policymakers to decide, for example, whether to build a military base in an area that will flood as sea levels rise; more accurate data also warns the U.S. military that it may have to evacuate people before a devastating tsunami, like the one that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia in 2004.

Dr. Berrien Moore III, who co-chaired a National Research Council committee on space-based observation, said calculated climate change predictions failed to capture how fast sea ice would decline, a problem that experts say will threaten national security as it causes mass flooding from rising sea levels. But satellites caught what the models missed.

“Thank God for the [satellite] observations because otherwise we wouldn’t have known this is going on,” said Moore, vice president for weather and climate programs at the University of Oklahoma.

The Obama administration has made its support for improved satellite observation of climate change known, taking steps toward restoring NASA’s earth sciences budget to its fiscal 2000 level, including $171 million to build OCO-2, after cuts by the Bush administration, and working to coordinate efforts among agencies. But the president’s 2011 budget hasn’t passed yet, and many congressional Republicans eager to cut federal spending are gunning for climate change programs.

The Bush Years

In 2005, the National Research Council released a grim report on its study of earth observation from space, saying the “system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse.” The 18-person committee of academics and researchers noted an “alarming” weakening of U.S. support for such programs.

Under President George W. Bush, NASA’s earth science budget shrunk more than 30 percent to free money for space exploration, including a mission to Mars, even as many satellites were approaching or past their life expectancy.

Meet the Satellites

Check out NASA’s Eyes on the Earth, an interactive 3D graphic that explores the agency’s Earth observing satellites.

The report called for NASA to spend more money on earth science programs, but NASA Administrator Michael Griffin had other priorities, according to Moore, co-chair of the committee that wrote it. “To say the least, [Griffin] didn’t embrace it.’’

In its 2010 report “Earth Observation for Climate Change,” CSIS asserted half of all climate satellites will have outlived their design life within the next eight years.  Lewis, the author, said that figure came from senior NOAA officials who were concerned that there were no plans to address the aging system.

During the Bush administration, numerous satellite missions were either cut or shelved:

  • The Global Precipitation Measurement mission, designed to replace the aging Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, was delayed from 2010 until at least 2012. Under President Obama’s proposed FY 2011 budget, GPM would launch in mid-2013. Against the odds, the 13-year-old TRMM is still working, and it’s unclear how much longer it will survive.
  • The Landsat series, a nearly 40-year-old mission run by the U.S. Geological Survey, had its next satellite delayed until at least 2011. This mission watches rising sea levels, glacial movement and coral reef decline — and charts environmental conditions for military and intelligence uses. But one satellite is experiencing degraded image quality due to a malfunction, and the other has been up since 1984. However, the next launch has been delayed until 2012.
  • The Hydros mission to measure soil moisture and permafrost, as well as improve forecasting of droughts and floods, was canceled. Under the president’s proposed budget, NASA would launch a satellite to measure soil moisture in 2014.

But what is perhaps the biggest misstep started even earlier.

Read Next page | All pages: 1 2

TAGS: , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  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