The spiraling cost of satellite programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has lawmakers from both parties sniffing around for a strategy to trim the agency's budget.

But there are no easy options to cut satellite spending and ensure the quality of weather forecasts and warnings to which Americans are accustomed, Obama administration officials said yesterday.

The White House's fiscal 2013 budget request seeks $5.1 billion for NOAA -- a request that amounts to a slight increase over current spending, but one that balances growing satellite costs with cuts to weather, oceans, fisheries and research programs.

It's a necessary evil, Commerce Secretary John Bryson told members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles NOAA's budget.

"I believe we have to put full priority in the satellite programs," he said. "National security is absolutely at stake."

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco sounded a similar line during her subsequent appearance before the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations panel.

"Satellites are expensive," she said. "We have tried to make a lot of tough choices, but in light of the importance of these satellites to provide weather warnings, disaster warnings, we believe they are vitally important."

An unwelcome message
That was an unwelcome message for lawmakers like Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the full House Appropriations Committee.

"Just a few years ago, in [fiscal] 2010, satellite procurement represented just over 25 percent of the NOAA budget. In this [fiscal] 2013 proposal, that jumps to 36.6 percent," he said. "This situation seems unsustainable."

Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah suggested that NOAA's satellites were "eating at other needed services."

Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) repeatedly compared NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System, which accounts for a hefty percentage of the agency's current satellite budget, to NASA's troubled James Webb Space Telescope, years behind schedule and well over its original budget.

But Lubchenco told lawmakers that the data that will be collected by JPSS is crucial for accurate weather forecasts and warnings -- and it is not available from any other source.

"There is no backup," she said.

NOAA has committed to cap JPSS's overall cost at $12.9 billion, she said, but keeping the program on track would require Congress to award the agency the full $916 million it is seeking for the satellite effort in fiscal 2013.

Weather and climate data gaps looming
Congress slashed JPSS's funding in fiscal 2011, giving NOAA just $382 million of the $910 million it asked for. The agency was forced to halt production of the first JPSS probe, delaying its launch.

While NOAA successfully pushed lawmakers for $924 million of the $1.07 billion it sought for JPSS in fiscal 2012, that was not enough to make up for lost time. The agency now believes that a future gap in crucial weather and climate data is a near certainty, and the Government Accountability Office agrees.

Lubchenco said yesterday that her agency now expects a data gap as long as 24 months, beginning in 2017, because the JPSS-1 satellite will not be ready to launch before its predecessor, Suomi NPP, stops functioning.

And that will have unwelcome consequences for the nation's weather forecasts, Lubchenco said. A National Weather Service study concluded that if data from JPSS-1's predecessor NOAA-19 had not been available during the 2010 "Snowmageddon" blizzard that hit the East Coast, weather models would have underestimated snowfall by 10 inches and the five- to seven-day advance forecast would have placed the storm 200 to 300 miles away from its actual path.

Meanwhile, the agency is still coping with the fallout of the administration's decision to limit JPSS's full cost to $12.9 billion. That decision led NOAA to abandon plans to fly two already-built climate sensors on JPSS probes. NOAA, NASA and the White House are working together "to try to find some way to keep them alive," Lubchenco said, but there is no money in the president's fiscal 2013 budget request for that purpose.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500