Climate scientists worry NOAA cuts will hinder Alaska weather forecasting

NOAA operates satellites like this that are part of the Joint Polar Satellite System. JPSS, a collaborative program between NOAA and NASA, is the latest generation of U.S. polar-orbiting, non-geosynchronous environmental satellites. (NOAA graphic)

Scientists who study Arctic climate say their research will suffer if the Trump administration goes ahead with big budget cuts reportedly under consideration for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And they say the proposed cuts also would hinder meteorologists’ ability to forecast weather in Alaska and worldwide.

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President Trump has made it clear he has doubts about climate change. And he’s declared he’ll reduce non-defense-related federal spending. So recent reports about big cuts under consideration for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, have generated a lot of anxiety among scientists who depend on the agency’s satellites to study Arctic climate.

“We are quite concerned about the possibility of losing an eye in the sky,” Mark Serreze said. Serreze is a senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center. He said cuts like those reported last week in the Washington Post would cripple NOAA satellite climate-monitoring programs that provide information to the Colorado-based snow and ice data center and many other research agencies.

“Certainly, if there were steep budget cuts, then we and many others would really be hurting,” Serreze said.

More importantly, Serreze said the cuts reportedly under consideration would hamper research essential to meteorologists – especially those who predict weather in Alaska, and offshore.

Data from satellites and other sensors help the National Snow and Ice Data Center and other research organizations and agencies to monitor Arctic sea ice cover and other phenomena. The data is used by researchers, weather forecasters, private industry and others.
(NSIDC graphic)

“A lot of other people depend on this information,” Serreze said. “For example, if you want good weather models, good numerical weather prediction, you need to know what the sea-ice cover is doing, where that sea ice is.”

Zack Labe, a doctoral student with the University of California-Irvine’s Department of Earth System Science, studies sea ice to among other things determine whether it influences weather in the middle latitudes.

“Budget cuts to the satellite network would not only affect climate monitoring but would also affect weather monitoring,” Labe said. The satellites are essential for researchers and weather forecasters here and worldwide, he added.

“There in Alaska, there are a lot of locations that don’t have radar observations and Doppler radar for weather,” Labe said. “Meteorologists in Alaska rely on the satellite network to provide weather forecasts.”

But Labe and Serreze, and other researchers who spoke on background for this story, all say it’s too soon worry about budget reductions, because the administration hasn’t completed its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. The Post story said NOAA’s overall budget would be cut by 17 percent, and that the agency’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research by 26 percent, and that that office’s satellite data division would be reduced 22 percent.

A Commerce Department spokesman declined Thursday to confirm the numbers or to comment on NOAA’s budget. NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.

Serreze said he thinks Congress wouldn’t allow those kinds of cuts.

“I strongly feel that what comes out of Congress is going to be quite different than what is proposed,” he said.

That’s basically how Alaska’s senior senator sees it.

Labe, a prolific tweeter of climate data, worries that budget cuts to NOAA’s satellite programs would aggravate the problem of gaps in data that may occur as older satellite systems are phased out before they’re replaced by new systems.
(Twitter screenshot)

“Those deep reductions would have a negative impact on not only our nation but specifically Alaska,” Karina Petersen said. She’s a spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “We rely on timely, accurate environmental monitoring and other services from NOAA that help to secure our communities and boost our economy.”

Petersen said Murkowski agrees the federal budget need to be trimmed, but that she disagrees with these purported cuts.

“Senator Murkowski will absolutely advocate for these programs within NOAA’s budget, that are key and important to Alaska,” Petersen said.

Congressman Don Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said the numbers cited in the Post story and elsewhere are not official. He said once the president sends a proposed budget to the Congress, Young will go over it and oppose cuts he believes are harmful to Alaska.

“There’s been Alaska-specific programs that have fallen under attack in prior years, and the Congressman is very good at going to the floor and defending those interests,” Shuckerow said.

The president is expected to send a budget to Congress later in the spring.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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