Privatizing Weather Forecasting

The Space Race Is On for Climate, Weather Privatization

By Andrew Freedman, July 15, 2013

The latest version of the “Space Race” lacks the Cold War-era drama of the last one, and does not even involve daring feats of manned spaceflight. No, this one is a race to launch a network of increasingly tiny Earth-observing satellites that will change how weather and climate information is gathered and disseminated.

And in this race, it is private industry, not the government, leading the charge. Instead of stirring presidential speeches, plans are being hatched in office parks around the country, by companies such as Skybox Imaging,PlanetIQ, and GeoOptics. They are vying to launch fleets of small, advanced, and low-cost satellites that represent a revolution akin to the one that turned computers from room-sized behemoths into things we hold in the palms of our hands.

The Skybox-1 satellite is about the size of a minifridge, far smaller than the house-sized earth imaging satellites it is set to compete with. Here it undergoes final testing in Mountain View, Calif. Credit: Skybox Imaging via Facebook.

For weather and climate forecasting, private satellite firms present an opportunity to dramatically expand the data available to scientists, which could markedly boost forecast accuracy. More important, if this space race reaches the finish line, it could revolutionize fields that depend on environmental data, from climate adaptation to urban planning, farming, and even insurance claims processing.

But there are myriad questions and roadblocks ahead, chief among them being uncertainty about how a federal government that is used to financing its own large and expensive satellite systems will manage the public-private partnership in a new arena. It has already successfully partnered with private satellite companies in the intelligence, telecommunications, and space transport sectors.

These fledgling companies hope to sell the data they generate to the U.S. and foreign governments — and private industry, too — turning the existing business model on its head.

Currently, the U.S. government spends billions of taxpayer dollars annually on satellites built by private companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace. These satellites, each roughly the size of a small house, are designed to remain in use for 5 to 10 years. Federal agencies, such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) then operate the satellites and provide the data to the public and the private sector for free, and have data-sharing agreements with foreign governments.

The products generated by these government satellites show up every day when you watch the weather. Most of the satellite images on TV weathercasts come from NOAA’s fleet of geostationary weather satellites, and the vast majority of data fed into weather forecasting models come from NOAA’s fleet of polar-orbiting satellites, thereby making the all-important five-day forecast possible.

NOAA video promoting the next-generation GOES-R series of satellites.

The current business model, though, has had a litany of problems, which has opened the door for this wave of entrepreneurs. NOAA and NASA have fallen years behind their satellite development schedules, and are dramatically overbudget – with weather satellites eating up more than half of NOAA’s annual total budget. In addition, satellite programs have been subject to fluctuations in congressional spending that have wreaked havoc on production timelines.

Throw in years of mismanagement and stir in manufacturing difficulties, and it has been a recipe for trouble in the form of a gap in satellite coverage that could erode the accuracy of weather forecasts. NOAA has projected that a void in polar satellite coverage is likely to begin in 2017 and last for up to a year or more, due to a mismatch between the design lifetime of a current satellite and the launch window for its replacement. That interruption is likely to undermine weather forecasts, and leave climate scientists with less research data.

The government is not only behind schedule and overbudget on many of its upcoming weather and climate satellite programs, but it is also cutting back on what it funds, much to the dismay of scientists.

For example, a relatively inexpensive network of small satellites that could provide thousands of measurements per day of temperature, humidity, and air pressure in the upper atmosphere was left in the lurch in May due to mandatory budget cuts known as the sequester. NOAA’s decision to use the $13.7 million it had earmarked for a satellite program, known as COSMIC-2, in order to avoid furloughing weather forecasters during hurricane season was a Pyrrhic victory. It also angered the government of Taiwan, with whom the U.S. is developing the system, and may have served as a warning shot for any country hoping to partner with the U.S.

“Like many other government agencies, NOAA was presented with difficult options and was forced to make painful decisions. NOAA has supported the COSMIC program and remains committed to its future,” said NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen in an email to Climate Central.

Though the consequences of the government’s mishaps are real, impacting the nation’s readiness for major storms, a new business model involving the private sector has pitfalls as well. Perhaps the biggest risk concerns the potential insolvency of these companies.

Artist’s concept of COSMIC (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate).
Credit: Orbital Sciences

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