NOAA almost blind in advance of hurricane season
Loss of GOES-13 satellite underscores problem with aging infrastructure.
The United States could lose its ability to monitor east coast weather, just in time for the start of an unusually active hurricane season. The problem stems from government mismanagement and the aging of outdated satellites.
Engineers are working to repair it. Meanwhile, a backup satellite will provide weather coverage.
This is the second time in a year that NOAA has had to deal with the failing satellite. In September 2012, the same satellite experienced problems forcing NOAA to rely on a spare.
If the spare should fail, NOAA would be without its own coverage of east coast weather and would be forced to rely on international partners to keep track of the weather.
The satellite, GOES-13, orbits the Earth in geostationary position, meaning it remains at a fixed location 22,300 miles above the surface. From its high location, it can observe the Atlantic and provides satellites images for weather forecasting. These images are displayed by the media to convey weather reports to the public.
Engineers expect they will be able to return GOES-13 to active service. However, the outage reveals a problem for the aging satellite network, which is reaching the end of its service life. The satellites are aging and need replacement, but mismanagement and the sequester means a replacement won't be launched until mid 2015 at best. Budget constraints may delay that further.
In the meantime, GOES-13 and its backup must not fail, or NOAA will be blinded and forced to rely on third parties for satellite data.
An outage at the wrong time could be serious. Forecasters predict that the Atlantic hurricane season will be especially severe with multiple major hurricanes predicted. An outage of even a few hours, could impair reporting at the wrong moment and leave at-risk people without ample warnings.
The Government Accounting Office has already recognized the problem as one of the top 30 challenges facing the federal government.
For now, the backup satellite is working normally and GOES-13 should be returned to service soon. However, NOAA is working without any margin for failure and a hiccup at the wrong moment could prove disastrous. We, who take accurate weather forecasts for granted, have been warned to ignore the problem at our peril.
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
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