WASHINGTON — Aging equipment, cost overruns and delays in producing new satellites threaten the future ability of forecasters to predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, a panel of experts and officials told lawmakers Wednesday.
The grim assessment of future capabilities - no concern was expressed about current forecasts - came just two days after Bill Proenza lost his post as director of the National Hurricane Center amid a controversy that involved a dying weather satellite.
"The bottom line is we are very vulnerable in the long term because we have no plan for replacing a valuable but aging weather satellite," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said after he chaired a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee.
He said the federal effort to replace the satellite was being mismanaged by "a hydra-headed monster" of agencies.
If important data cannot be collected in the future, he and others said, hurricane warning areas might have to be widened, potentially causing unnecessary anxiety and expense.
"I can't think of any priority that is higher in the nation's needs because the threat is real, the threat is there, the vulnerability is there and it's not going to go away," Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research told congressional staffers Tuesday.
He and other experts told lawmakers Wednesday that the satellite, called QuikSCAT, was launched in 1999 on a three-year mission to measure winds over distant regions of the ocean.
It now is in its eighth year, operating on a backup transmitter. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects it to operate for several more years, though there are no guarantees.
Forecasters and researchers have been lobbying for an upgraded replacement through an ambitious program known as the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was supposed to begin rolling out in 2009.
But NPOESS has suffered billions of dollars in cost overruns, the experts said. A downgraded program is expected to launch in 2013. A program to replace other satellites, known as GEOS-R, also is running into trouble.
Antonio Busalacchi, a scientist with the University of Maryland and head of a National Research Council panel looking into NPOESS, called NPOESS a "debacle" that compromised "critical" gathering of data about ocean surface winds and other factors.
Nelson agreed, saying NPOESS was "bogged down by budget constraints and delays for which someone needs to be held accountable."
He criticized the Bush administration for a "lack of interest or political will" to deal with climate issues.
Nelson said hurricane losses have averaged $36 billion per year during the past five years, but the federal government was spending less than $1 billion annually on satellite and other weather-data-gathering platforms.
Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., warned the panel this could "cause dire consequences to residents living in South Florida, and the over 50 percent of Americans who live within 50 miles of a coastline."
Authorities have other tools at their disposal, including weather buoys and hurricane hunter aircraft outfitted with sophisticated equipment. But, Klein added, those planes cannot reach distant areas now monitored by QuikSCAT.
Proenza repeatedly made the same points after he took over the hurricane center in West Miami-Dade County in January, but critics - ultimately including most of his own forecasters - said he was magnifying the importance of QuikSCAT and undermining confidence in their forecasts.
On Monday, after an unprecedented public rebellion of his staff and months of clashes with superiors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, Proenza was relieved of duty and placed on indefinite leave.
NPOESS, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, was supposed to cost $6.5 billion over a 24-year life, with the first satellite launch planned for April 2009.
Last year, the program was revised because of technical delays and rising costs. Now, it is expected to cost $12.5 billion, with the first satellite launch planned in 2013.
In addition, the number of satellites has been cut from six to four. The system will carry seven sensors instead of 10 and gather 39 data records - 16 fewer than the original program. The GAO warned that more revisions could take place.
The ability to better understand the climate and improve forecasts could be diminished for "generations to come," Busalacchi said.
NPOESS was managed by several agencies, including the Department of Defense, NASA and NOAA. The result, said Nelson, was "a hydra-headed monster here who can't decide which way it wants to go."
Mary Ellen Kicza, NOAA's assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said interagency coordination was improving. NASA now is in charge of developing instruments, spacecraft and launch systems, while NOAA would operate the satellites.
She said the program had to be downgraded to ensure "continuity" of data gathering, and NOAA and NASA were looking at ways to mitigate the impact of the cutbacks.