The ongoing budget battles in Washington are shining lights into parts of the spending process that many of us take for granted. It's easy to forget when we're looking at the spectacular pictures of hurricanes from outer space that those pictures come from government-owned and operated satellites. Since we pay for them with our taxes, the pictures are made available to anyone. (National Hurricane Center forecasters are also government employees and that's why they are made available to all media outlets.)
Pictures and other data from satellites are the key to getting early and accurate assessment of threats from hurricanes and other forms of severe weather as they begin to form in areas far too remote for land-based radar and hurricane hunter aircraft to spot them. Now with seemingly everyone agreeing that federal spending will have to be cut in the future, the argument is shifting to what can be cut and what must be kept.
The good news is that many of our current crop of satellites were so well designed and built that they are still working long past their "sell-by" date. But with nearly two dozen satellites on the verge of failure, scientists are warning that satellites are going to be failing faster than they can be replaced.
If you're tempted to ask "so what?" when it comes to the threat of losing our weather satellite network, the potential impact to our economy is staggering. One estimate puts the potential economic impact of inadequate weather forecasting at $4 trillion.
Fortunately, (or perhaps unfortunately) the system will not collapse all at once and the National Weather Service and its parent NOAA are constantly planning for ways to take up the slack for satellite failures, but the fact is the status quo isn't good enough. When we're talking about a $4 trillion hit to the economy, we're also talking about a threat to our national security.