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Stormy forecast for weather satellites

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The Government Accountability Office has warned for more than a year that, because of a decade of poor planning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and budget stalemates in Congress, the nation would go a year or more without the kind of weather satellites that played a crucial role in tracking Hurricane Sandy.

Certain existing satellites are expected to go out of operation around 2016. In a stinging June report, the GAO said NOAA still had no plans to mitigate the data gap caused by the failure to launch new satellites to replace old ones. “These gaps will likely affect the accuracy and timeliness of weather predictions and forecasts and could affect lives, property, military operations, and commerce,” the GAO said. It recommended that NOAA establish mitigation plans, including getting as much data as possible from military and commercial satellites.

These piecemeal steps are a poor substitute for the dedicated polar orbiters that provided the vast majority of data to track Hurricane Sandy. NOAA now says it is pushing harder to get new satellites launched and to mitigate whatever gaps occur, but the agency’s assurances aren’t satisfying. President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie worked in an effective bipartisan way in coordinating relief efforts from Sandy. Members of Congress and other officials from both parties should make a similarly bipartisan effort to keep these critical early warning tools in space.

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