Despite President Bush’s recent announcement of a proposed new international climate change framework and talk at the 2007 G-8 summit regarding global warming, major national news media recently reported that critical next-generation climate sensors had been excised from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), with potentially dire implications for United States climate science research.

NPOESS was established by President Clinton in 1994 as a multi-agency effort by the Department of Defense, NOAA, and NASA. NPOESS was designed to replace two aging military and civil environmental satellite systems, DMSP and POES, which have provided advanced, weather forecasting and climate monitoring capabilities. Originally, the project was estimated to cost $6.5 billion over the proposed 24-year life of the program, 1996-2018. NPOESS was to be comprised of six polar-orbiting satellites outfitted with 13 instruments. The first satellite was to be launched in 2008.

In recent years, NPOESS has been plagued with technical difficulties, schedule delays, and significant cost over-runs. In 2005, a review by the Department of Defense was triggered when program costs were reported to be 25 percent higher than originally proposed. The subsequent re-certification of NPOESS in June 2006 resulted in significant changes to the scope, cost, and schedule of the satellite system. Higher priority was placed on the weather-monitoring instruments over climate sensors. Despite now costing an estimated $12.5 billion, NPOESS was reduced to 4 satellites with nine total instruments—four of which would provide fewer capabilities than originally planned.

What do these changes mean for U.S. climate research? On 4 June 2007 the public interest group Climate Science Watch released a previously confidential report written by NASA and NOAA scientists to the White House that revealed scientists’ concerns over the major impacts that the re-scoped NPOESS program would have on climate research. According to the report, “Unfortunately, the recent loss of climate sensors due to the NPOESS Nunn-McCurdy Certification places the overall climate program in serious jeopardy.”

Among the predicted consequences: loss of continuity in long-term climate data records, a decreased ability to predict long-term climate change and associated events such as sea level rise, increased data uncertainty, and a reduced understanding of natural vs. anthropogenic climate drivers.

The report offers recommendations for recovering some of the lost climate sensor capabilities, including a suggestion to increase collaboration with European Space Agency programs.

On 7 June 2007, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on the status of NPOESS in which they addressed a number of points from the leaked report. Members questioned the Administration’s science adviser John Marburger, NPOESS program officer Brigadier General Sue Mashiko, and the Government Accountability Office’s David Powner. The hearing was held in conjunction with the GAO’s release of its latest report on NPOESS.

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Nick Sampson (D-TX) expressed concern that “without decisive action and leadership, we will lose continuity in the multi-decadal data sets that are central to our understanding of global warming. In fact, some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point.”

The GAO report on NPOESS can be viewed at: www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-07-498

 


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