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Next time there's a hurricane, the US may not be warned

A "gap" in satelite monitoring coming up.

A flooded tunnel in New York. Photograph: Getty Images

As Hurricane Sandy barrelled down on New York, contingency plans were already in action. Days before the storm made landfall, public transport was shut down, electric grid equipment moved and hospital patients evacuated to safer ground. Such precautions indisputably saved lives and millions of dollars, but the window in which these precautions can be taken could be about to slam shut.

Officials have been afforded this window of opportunity by the extensive coverage provided by a fleet of geostationary satellites that continually monitor meteorological developments in and around the US. The data recorded by these satellites shapes the accuracy of forecasts that have become vital during hurricane seasons that could, according to many scientists, become increasingly tempestuous.

The concern emanates from the rapidly deteriorating capabilities of these aging satellites. Systems currently relied upon to contribute towards the accuracy of weather forecasting are approaching or have exceeded their maximum life expectancy. With the launch of the next replacement satellite having slipped to 2017, scientists fear the emergence of a coverage gap that could significantly hamper National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration efforts to protect US civilians.

Although there are currently 90 Earth-sensing instruments carried aboard NASA’s fleet of weather satellites, delays to the launch of the replacement Joint Polar Satellite System mean this figure could fall to as little as 20 by the turn of the decade, an event that NRC committee chairman Dennis Hartmann has labelled as having “profound consequences on science and society”.

Hartmann’s damning indictment tends to be reinforced by statistics. Analysis of the cost of previous storms weighed against the expenditure of NASA’s weather satellites shows that for every $1 invested into space infrastructure, $5 in clean-up costs are saved. What this fails to take into account, of course, is the price of human life – an invaluable quantity that detailed and accurate forecasting has undoubtedly saved in recent years.

The realisation that such a coverage gap could occur has seen the replacement effort labelled as a “national embarrassment” by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, triggering an urgent restructuring of the troubled and dysfunctional programme. Having been forced into an admission that replacement satellites could not be launched sooner, the US Government Accountability Office has labeled a coverage gap as “almost certain”.

Whether it’s due to negligence of complacency, the combination of increasing commonality of severe weather and a reduction in satellite coverage has created something of a perfect storm in itself. Forecasters will be forced to predict the implications of hurricanes with incomplete data, potentially endangering the lives of civilians. The window of opportunity could be blown in before people have the chance to board it up.

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