November 17, 2011

More on the DSB Climate and Security Report: Earth Monitoring Satellites

The Defense Science Board’s new report, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and
International Security
is getting
some good traction. As I promised in my lengthy post on Tuesday, I’m
continuing to mine the report to pull out the most interesting findings and

What is interesting (and
certainly a welcomed message) is the report’s recommendation to bolster U.S.
civilian satellite programs that generate environmental and climate data. According to the authors, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) should, “Work with the National Aeronautical and
Space Administration [NASA] to conduct a renewed study of options for
increasing the availability of low-cost, high-reliability launch vehicles for
civil science satellites critical for climate observations

The recommendation comes at a
time when America’s declining earth monitoring satellite capability is raising
concerns that the United States is quickly approaching a capability gap that
could hamper our ability to understand near- and long-term changes to the
environment, including their implications for U.S. national security. In
August, Christine Parthemore and I wrote in Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth
Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security
that By 2016, only seven of NASA’s current 13 earth monitoring satellites are
expected to be operational, leaving a crucial information gap that will hinder national
security planning,” and that losing satellite-based earth monitoring
capabilities will affect U.S. national security, given that DOD, USAID, the
State Department and others rely on the information generated by those
satellites for crucial planning purposes.

In October, NASA
successfully launched the most recent civilian earth monitoring satellite, the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP),
a stopgap solution to NASA’s ailing earth monitoring satellite program. Popular Mechanics reported in
October that the successful launch could help bridge the satellite capability
gap: “As
NASA’s three current polar orbiters—Terra, Aqua, and Aura—near the end of their
operational lifetimes, the experimental NPP satellite is thrust into the role
of providing data critical to both short-term weather forecasting and long-term
climate science
.” And while the NPP is a stopgap solution, it is a welcome
addition to the climate research field. But, as the DSB suggests, it certainly
should not be the last effort.

With the Defense
Department’s premier science board raising concerns about the capability gap
and recommending that the civilian institutions charged with overseeing climate
and environmental satellites look for solutions to strengthen that capability,
one would hope that the issue will get the attention it deserves. DOD’s ability
to monitor and plan for climate change is, in part, tied to those civilian
capabilities, and so it’s not a stretch at all to say that those capabilities are
a critical national security asset.