By Emmarie Huetteman
Medill National Security Reporting Project
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Shortly after liftoff in February 2009, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory — or what was left after it re-entered the atmosphere — crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica, unable to reach orbit due to a faulty shield. A $250 million investment had become scrap metal on the ocean floor.
If the launch had been successful, OCO would have been the first satellite dedicated to measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and tracking emission reduction efforts, offering crucial insight into the earth’s changing climate. This information is needed not only by scientists monitoring the environment but also federal officials struggling to understand rising threats of those climate changes to national security.
“Here’s a key variable for understanding climate change, the only satellite in the world that will do the kind of global collection we need, [and it] crashes,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of an influential report on climate observation. “And we haven’t thought about how to replace it.”
The short, unproductive life of OCO — and the lack of a backup plan — marked another chapter in the long-running story of the nation’s teetering climate observation system. For two decades, the U.S. constellation of earth science satellites has been beset by competing priorities, shrinking budgets and mismanagement, even as intelligence and military officials express serious concerns about the national security threats posed by climate change and the need for accurate data to help assess those threats.
In a world where the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica is intact one day and collapses into the sea the next, scientists say the need for continuous, reliable satellite observation is vital. It enables more accurate projections, allowing policymakers to decide, for example, whether to build a military base in an area that will flood as sea levels rise; more accurate data also warns the U.S. military that it may have to evacuate people before a devastating tsunami, like the one that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia in 2004.
Dr. Berrien Moore III, who co-chaired a National Research Council committee on space-based observation, said calculated climate change predictions failed to capture how fast sea ice would decline, a problem that experts say will threaten national security as it causes mass flooding from rising sea levels. But satellites caught what the models missed.
“Thank God for the [satellite] observations because otherwise we wouldn’t have known this is going on,” said Moore, vice president for weather and climate programs at the University of Oklahoma.
The Obama administration has made its support for improved satellite observation of climate change known, taking steps toward restoring NASA’s earth sciences budget to its fiscal 2000 level, including $171 million to build OCO-2, after cuts by the Bush administration, and working to coordinate efforts among agencies. But the president’s 2011 budget hasn’t passed yet, and many congressional Republicans eager to cut federal spending are gunning for climate change programs.
The Bush Years
In 2005, the National Research Council released a grim report on its study of earth observation from space, saying the “system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse.” The 18-person committee of academics and researchers noted an “alarming” weakening of U.S. support for such programs.
Under President George W. Bush, NASA’s earth science budget shrunk more than 30 percent to free money for space exploration, including a mission to Mars, even as many satellites were approaching or past their life expectancy.
Meet the Satellites
Check out NASA’s Eyes on the Earth, an interactive 3D graphic that explores the agency’s Earth observing satellites.
The report called for NASA to spend more money on earth science programs, but NASA Administrator Michael Griffin had other priorities, according to Moore, co-chair of the committee that wrote it. “To say the least, [Griffin] didn’t embrace it.’’
In its 2010 report “Earth Observation for Climate Change,” CSIS asserted half of all climate satellites will have outlived their design life within the next eight years. Lewis, the author, said that figure came from senior NOAA officials who were concerned that there were no plans to address the aging system.
During the Bush administration, numerous satellite missions were either cut or shelved:
- The Global Precipitation Measurement mission, designed to replace the aging Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, was delayed from 2010 until at least 2012. Under President Obama’s proposed FY 2011 budget, GPM would launch in mid-2013. Against the odds, the 13-year-old TRMM is still working, and it’s unclear how much longer it will survive.
- The Landsat series, a nearly 40-year-old mission run by the U.S. Geological Survey, had its next satellite delayed until at least 2011. This mission watches rising sea levels, glacial movement and coral reef decline — and charts environmental conditions for military and intelligence uses. But one satellite is experiencing degraded image quality due to a malfunction, and the other has been up since 1984. However, the next launch has been delayed until 2012.
- The Hydros mission to measure soil moisture and permafrost, as well as improve forecasting of droughts and floods, was canceled. Under the president’s proposed budget, NASA would launch a satellite to measure soil moisture in 2014.
But what is perhaps the biggest misstep started even earlier.