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

A "gap" in satelite monitoring coming up.

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.

Read more here.

A flooded tunnel in New York. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam Stoker is the aerospace and defence features writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder