The United States is on the verge of losing its ability to monitor phytoplankton activity in the world's oceans from space, the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday.
The loss of satellite-based "ocean color" measurements would be a blow to climate science, because phytoplankton -- tiny ocean plants -- help regulate the global carbon cycle. Like plants on land, phytoplankton produce energy by photosynthesis, pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to fuel the process.
In the new report, a committee assembled by the science academy warns that the United States' ability to monitor ocean color is at risk.
"It is uncertain how much longer data from U.S. sensors will be available to support climate research," the NAS report says. "It is imperative to maintain and improve the capability of satellite ocean color missions at the accuracy level required to understand changes to ocean ecosystems that potentially affect living marine resources and the ocean carbon cycle."
One sensor, known as "SeaWiFs" (Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor), stopped working in December after 14 years.
That leaves the country with just one ocean-color sensor capable of collecting "climate-quality" data, the report says. But the sensor, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard NASA's Aqua satellite, is several years beyond its design life.
The federal government has plans to build replacement sensors, but the NAS panel says there are lingering questions about the quality of data they will collect and how soon they could launch into space.
Meanwhile, a European instrument, the European Medium-Resolution Imaging Spectrometer, is in orbit -- but, like MODIS, it is also well beyond its intended life span.
Victims of continuing budget declines
The new NAS report comes after years of warnings by the science academy, scientific groups and other experts that the United States' constellation of Earth-observing satellites has been weakened by years of lean budgets.
Recent developments on Capitol Hill suggest it's a trend that won't be reversed anytime soon.
A House Appropriations subcommittee voted yesterday to approve spending legislation for fiscal 2012 that would, for the second year in a row, undercut the White House budget request for the country's next generation of weather and climate satellites.
The proposal passed by the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee would award $812 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Joint Polar Satellite System in the next spending cycle, roughly 20 percent less than the $1.07 billion the agency sought.
That is still an improvement over the 2011 spending deal enacted in April, which set aside $382 million for JPSS -- a fraction of the $910 million NOAA requested.
"This is the amount of money we have," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee. "Our country is broke."
A gap in storm warning looms
But that relative increase for JPSS in 2012 may not be enough to lessen the impact of the program's 2011 budget shortfall.
NOAA says it has enough money to launch the first JPSS satellite in October -- but it is likely that the second JPSS probe won't reach orbit before its predecessor stops functioning.
The result would be a gap in crucial weather and climate data, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco warned in May.
"Because we have insufficient funds in the [fiscal] '11 budget, we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today," she said.
Agency officials have said that if they receive the full $1.07 billion they requested for JPSS in 2012, they will likely be able to prevent further delays to the satellite launch schedule. But that is not what the House GOP has proposed.