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Satellite woes could hamper storm forecasts

Officials decry mismanagement of US program

WASHINGTON — The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement and underfunding, according to several recent official reviews.

The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts view as almost certain to occur within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the Northeast seaboard early next week.

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The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the equator in the afternoon, scanning the whole planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms around five days ahead.

All this week, forecasters have been relying on just such satellite observations for almost all of the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: explode against the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the massive snowfall that hit Washington in a 2010 blizzard.

‘‘We cannot afford to lose any enhancement that allows us to accurately forecast any weather event coming our way,’’ said Craig J. Craft, commissioner of emergency management for Nassau County, Long Island, where the great hurricane of 1938 hit without warning and killed hundreds.

Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launching of the next replacement, known as JPSS-1, has slipped until early 2017, probably too late to avoid a gap of at least a year.

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Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the program’s managers are just beginning to think through their alternatives when the gap arrives, but these are unlikely to avoid it.

The mismanagement of the $13 billion program, which goes back a decade, was recently described as a ‘‘national embarrassment’’ by a top official of the Commerce Department.

This summer, independent reviews by the Commerce inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and a blue-ribbon team of outside experts questioned the government’s cost estimates for the program, criticized the program’s managers for not pinning down the design, and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and NASA.

The outside review team, led by A. Thomas Young, an aerospace industry leader, called the management of the program ‘‘dysfunctional.’’ In response, Commerce and NOAA officials ordered on Sept. 18 what they called an urgent restructuring, the latest overhaul of a program that has been troubled for many years. They streamlined the management, said they would fill key vacancies quickly, and demanded immediate reports on how the agency might try to cope with the gap. They have moved quickly to nail down the specific designs of the JPSS-1’s components, many of them already partly built. And they promised to quickly complete an independent cost estimate to verify the program’s budget.

“There is no more critical strategic issue for our weather satellite programs than the risk of gaps in satellite coverage,’’ Jane Lubchenco, the undersecretary of Commerce responsible for NOAA, wrote in her memorandum ordering the changes. Lubchenco wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix ‘‘this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.’’

“It is a long, sad history,’’ said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council.

The report projected a dismal decline in what has been among the crown jewels of modern earth and atmospheric science.

The JPSS (for Joint Polar Satellite System) also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk. But its main satellites, about the size of small school buses, are most notable because they put instruments to sense atmospheric moisture, temperature, and the like into what is known as the ‘‘polar p.m.’’ orbit, a passage from lower altitude that provides sharp and frequent images of weather patterns spanning the globe.

Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main US computer model tracking the course of Hurricane Sandy.

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