September 20, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Mind the Gap


Here’s a story near and dear to our hearts at the Natural Security blog: an important report from The Washington Post this weekend shed light on the decline in U.S. Earth-monitoring capability, which is essential to tracking changes in the global climate and understanding the potential security implications of climate change. “I would say our ability to observe the Earth from space is at grave risk of dying from neglect,” Christopher Field, Director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, told the Post’s Suzanne Bohan. According to Bohan:

When Stanford climate scientist Christopher Field looks at visual feeds from a satellite monitoring deforestation in the Amazon basin, he sees images streaked with white lines devoid of data. The satellite, Landsat 7, is broken. And it's emblematic of the nation's battered satellite environmental monitoring program. The bad news: It's only going to get worse, unless the federal agencies criticized for their poor management of the satellite systems over the past decade stage a fast turnaround. Many, however, view that prospect as a long shot. (Emphasis added)

Citing an April 2010 General Accountability Office report (GAO), Bohan highlighted cuts to the next generation Earth-observing satellites, including the elimination of key instruments that are necessary to sustain important climate-monitoring capability:

Gone is a sensor that would relay new data about the atmosphere and environmental conditions in the ocean and along coastal areas. The movement of pollutants and greenhouse gases would have been under the instrument's mechanical gaze, as well. Also absent is a critical sensor that monitors temperature changes over time on Earth.

“That's like if you have a sick patient, and then say, ‘I have no more thermometers,’” Inez Fung, a climatologist at UC Berkeley, told Bohan. Reporting on the GAO’s conclusions, Bohan wrote that:

In all, nine new climate instruments on the next generation of satellites were canceled or their capabilities scaled back in 2006, according to the Government Accountability Office report. Combined with a five-year delay in launching these next-generation satellites, with the first scheduled to blast off in 2011, these canceled or "degraded" instruments leave the nation facing critical gaps in satellite monitoring of the planet beginning in 2015, the report stated.  (Emphasis added)

Checkout figure 8 on page 24 of the GAO report for a graphic illustrating the capability gap. 

So how do we fix this gap? Well, according to David Powner, a GAO auditor and lead author of the April 2010 report, there needs to be stronger leadership on this issue, in particular in the Executive Office of the President. “‘We pinned it on [the Office of Science and Technology Policy, OSTP],’” Powner told Bohan. “‘They have the responsibility to coordinate these interagency-type, long-term issues.” But how much does the current economic environment eclipse stronger leadership as the critical issue to address?

The cuts to the next generation satellite programs that occurred over the last few years raise some interesting questions. In particular, how quickly will there be a call to action to address our capability gap in this fiscally constrained environment? Especially considering that one of the more recent interagency Earth-monitoring satellite programs, the National Polar-orbiting Operation Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, has been marred by extreme cost overruns that, as of late, had totaled 14 billion dollars – 7 billion dollars over budget.

We need the capability – that much is clear. Dr. Jay Gulledge and I cited a June 2009 GAO report in our April 2010 report, Lost in Translation: Navigating the Gap Between Climate Science and National Security Policy, that explicitly stated that our Earth-monitoring capability is “considered critical to the United States’ ability to maintain the continuity of data required for weather forecasting (including severe weather events such as hurricanes) and global climate monitoring.” But in this economic environment, who will step up? Will it be the U.S. government? Could we see greater cooperation between the intelligence and climate science communities, which we have seen in the past? Will the private sector play a greater role? With the United States, which according to Bohan is “at risk of losing its worldwide technological leadership in Earth-observing satellites,” instead choose to rely on its European or Asian allies who are sustaining their Earth-monitoring capability? Time will tell. But there are important policy implications officials need to think through in considering this issue, especially if the demand for climate data with more fidelity is likely to explode over the next several years.

This Week's Events

On Tuesday at 9 AM, American University’s Washington College of Law will hold an event to look at 21st Century Renewables Infrastructure: Supporting the Convergence of Energy and the Environment. Also at 9 AM, the Wilson Center will have an event that explores Governing the Far North: Assessing Cooperation Between Arctic and Non-Arctic Nations. Then at 2PM, checkout the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy event on Renewable Energy Collaboration between India and the United States. On Wednesday at 9 AM, the Wilson Center will explore water, energy and climate change issues with ChokePoint: US: Understanding the Tightening Conflict between Energy and Water in the Era of Climate Change. Then, of course, at 11:30 AM, don’t miss Christine take the stage with General Anthony Zinni (Ret.) at our event on the Hill, Sustaining Security: How Natural Resources Influence National Security. Finally, on Friday at 9:30 AM, head to the Environmental and Energy Studies Institute event, Water Quality in Our Nation’s Streams and Groundwater. Finish your Friday with an interestingly titled event at the Elliot School, Oil Is Not a Curse. Have a great week everyone!   

Photo: Courtesy of flickr user Marcin Wichary.