Green Guru: Do We Need Satellites?

The number of earth-monitoring satellites directly affects our ability to see our changing planet.

Do we need satellites to monitor the earth?

Brent Frazier, Atlanta, GA


The two dozen or so American government satellites currently observing earth from space help us understand more about our planet with greater accuracy than ever before. They’re used for everything from generating weather forecasts to tracking wildfires and predicting extreme storms—something that will be increasingly important in coming years as global warming spurs more extreme weather. Yet the number of satellites NOAA and NASA operate could drop to a mere six in 2020, inhibiting our ability to document land-use changes, like rainforests being converted to pasture, and to predict weather and climatic changes.

“We’re going to lose some significant faction of our capability to observe earth from space when we need the information the most,” says Dennis L. Hartmann, a University of Washington atmospheric scientist and an author of a National Research Council report published in May about satellites. Among the causes are two launch failures in recent years, aging satellites, fewer satellites being sent into orbit, lack of funding, and changes in administration.

Keeping our satellites operational, the report found, would require a long-term interagency plan and an annual budget increase from $1.5 billion to $2 billion. While the private sector has emerged as a potential option for space flight, it doesn’t look promising for earth-observing satellites. Besides, the government is responsible for keeping them going, says Hartmann.

“There’s a national safety issue there,” he says. “You need to predict hurricanes, snowstorms, tropical storms, mid-latitude storms. The government has a health and safety mandate.”

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