Within the borders of the world’s third largest country resides the most dynamic and technologically advanced economy on the globe. From smartphones and cars to supercomputers and nano- technology, the United States is a global leader in innovation. As a vast country with a diverse landscape of mountains, deserts, plains, coasts, wetlands, lakes, and forests and an equally diverse populace, the U.S. must rely on its technological innovation to guide a secure future for the more than 318 million people that make this nation their home.
Nowhere is reliance on technology and innovation more apparent than in the area of understanding and predicting weather and climate on time scales that range from hourly to decadal. From the submersibles deep in the ocean, to ground- based instruments, to satellites in space, today’s U.S. civil Earth observation capabilities may seem robust. However, despite monitoring the planet with an estimated $5 billion annually spread across 17 Federal agencies, the U.S. still faces many challenges. While satellites are operating well past their designed life span, there is a lack of integration across programs, no comprehensive strategy exists to ensure future systems are adequately robust to meet new needs, and approaches to engage and grow the private sector have yet to be defined.
Progress has been made. For example, the White House and Congress have recognized the value of our nation’s weather satellites and have improved development with stable and consistent funding and oversight. The Office of Science and Technology Policy has developed a National Strategy for U.S. Civil Earth Observations. The Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region and National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan have recognized the key role of observations and outlined necessary actions for the federal government to pursue. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act and Congress recently reauthorized the National Integrated Drought Information System program. The recent release of the National Climate Assessment also drives home the important message regarding the need for improved environmental information, which results from space-based, airborne, and in situ ocean, land, and atmospheric observations, research, and modeling.
This report seeks to further identify key priorities and recommend actionable steps, and was informed by numerous reports, such as the Government Accountability Office’s 2013 High Risk List and the Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey.
Earth Observation Priorities 2014 focuses on five critical topics: Weather and Climate, Drought, Water Resources, the Arctic, and Economic Competitiveness.
Related to these priority areas, the Alliance recommends that Congress provide stable funding for Earth observation programs across the federal government recognizing the interconnectedness of these programs, the importance of mitigating and reducing the risk of data gaps, the goal of restoring superiority in weather forecasting, and the economic benefit of long-term investment to the nation.
Specifically, Congress should:Better protect American lives, property, and the economy by supporting the FY2015 budget requests for weather and climate satellites and surface-based observation programs (JPSS, GOES-R, NASA’s Earth Science Research missions, the DOD Weather System Follow-on and the National Mesonet Program). Equip Americans to better understand and respond to drought by providing funding as authorized to maintain and improve the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) and by providing consistent funding and oversight for a continuous medium-resolution governmental land imaging program. Advance U.S. freshwater monitoring and forecasting by continuing to fund the National Streamflow Information Program at an appropriate level. Protect U.S. interests and implement expand Earth monitoring capabilities in the Arctic to better understand and predict changes in the most rapidly changing region in the world and how those changes affect not only the Arctic, but the entire globe. Drive U.S. innovation, create jobs, and grow the economy by adopting public-private partnership business models where feasible to augment national systems with commercial data sources, hosted payloads for dedicated sensors, and new innovative measurement capabilities, and to provide the private sector with greater access to existing government data sources.
The President should direct federal agencies to continue to work toward an integrated Earth observation system of systems that leverages the unique capabilities of each participating agency. In addition:The Office of Science and Technology Policy should complete the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations and ensure that individual agencies immediately begin implementation. Pursue innovative commercial space-based solutions to augment the core government Landsat program and seek innovative acquisition strategies from commercial providers to ensure affordability and access to higher-resolution imagery than can be obtained from government civil Earth imaging satellites. Enable access to older data from the government’s National Technical Means imaging systems. Support and actively facilitate the Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region and the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. Support a U.S./Canadian agreement regarding Arctic communications and weather satellite capability. Optimize U.S. policy and Category XV of the U.S. Munitions List so that commercial-class U.S. remote sensing companies are able to successfully compete against foreign suppliers. Establish a centralized mechanism by which commercial solutions can be considered within the federal Earth observing enterprise, thus spurring innovation and reducing costs.
The Alliance for Earth Observation’s unified commitment towards developing a second-to-none world-class Earth observation enterprise means non-federal action as well. In 2014, the Alliance will:Continue to reach out to stakeholder groups across sectors to bring together data collectors with data users to facilitate improved engagement and dissemination. Continue to work across various sectors and disciplines to support U.S. programs, leverage U.S. investment in Earth observations, and provide the highest quality research and development capabilities. Utilize the breadth of expertise and experience of the Alliance members to continue to inform the public and policy makers about the key components of an Earth observation system and to demonstrate support for these components. Support the President and Congress in their efforts to sustain necessary programs and to promote innovative new policies. enterprise to provide innovative strategies and ideas for future systems and capabilities.
PRIORITY 1: WEATHER AND CLIMATE
Better protect American lives, property, and the economy by reducing the risk of data gaps, restoring superiority in weather forecasting, and increasing understanding of climate change
The impact of weather on our daily activities, as well as on broad sectors of the U.S. economy, is astounding. Major storms can cause billions of dollars in damage and wreak havoc on the economic viability of a community. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy was responsible for approximately $65 billion worth of damage and 159 deaths. Nearly as destructive, but not as widely reported, was the impact of the heat wave and accompanying drought that affected a large portion of the U.S. during 2012. It is estimated that the heat wave and drought were responsible for $30 billion worth in crop damage and 123 deaths.1
U.S. Weather Satellite Systems. Despite the importance weather forecasting has on the lives, property and economy of U.S. citizens, the U.S. currently faces a weather satellite data gap potentially lasting 15-40 months beginning as early as 2017. Major satellite acquisition programs to replace aging satellite systems are currently in development. The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is being developed to provide global environmental data critical to weather forecasting. The data and imagery to be collected by JPSS aid NOAA and the U.S. government in developing timely and accurate public warnings and forecasts. JPSS will host the same next-generation weather instruments that are currently in operation on the precursor satellite, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). JPSS-1 is not expected to launch until 2017. The Government Accountability Office has noted that the potential gap in weather satellite data constituted one of the high-risk government programs in 2013.
Figure 1 below depicts the current and planned civil weather system as detailed by the NOAA NESDIS Independent Review Team’s One Year Assessment. The report indicates that current NASA and NOAA satellites are operating beyond their designed life span and the on-orbit architecture becomes very sparse in the forthcoming years. In addition, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), designed to cover the nation’s needs for the AM orbit, recently launched the second- to-last in its series. The final DMSP satellite (F-20) is ready for launch; yet the DOD has only recently requested funding to implement the follow-on program. Even as such, the Weather Satellite Follow-on (WSF) program is being designed to meet only the highest priority DOD weather requirements but will not have the same capability as DMSP. Urgency is increased by imminent gaps (i.e., in ocean surface vector winds for tropical cyclone intensity, and some space weather gaps) that will not be met by DMSP capabilities, or other US capabilities.
NASA Earth Observation System. NASA also operates a fleet of Earth science research satellites that contribute to our weather and climate prediction capabilities, all of which are operating well beyond their designed lifetime. The fleet of both satellite and airborne platforms provides integrated and long-term global observations meant to provide a coordinated and improved understanding of Earth’s environment as one system. A 2012 review of NASA’s Earth Science program, Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey found that within the next 6 years the number of NASA and NOAA Earth observing instruments in space will be only 25 percent of the current fleet. As the report states, “rapid decline in capability is now beginning and the needs for both investment and careful stewardship of the U.S. Earth observations enterprise are more certain and more urgent now than they were 5 years ago.”
National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations. The same 2012 National Academies report suggested that an inter- agency framework for sustained global Earth observation systems should be developed. The Office of Science and Technology Policy released a National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations in April 2013. While such a framework was an essential first step, the White House needs to complete the process by finalizing the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations that will fill in the necessary details for a coordinated federal Earth observation program that allocates roles, responsibilities, and resources needed to maintain a national Earth observation system.
Reliable and accurate weather forecasting and prediction capabilities cannot be compromised and actions need to be taken to:Ensure long-term U.S. capabilities in weather and climate data continuity by guaranteeing critical satellite systems remain on track with appropriate funding and continued over-sight. This includes fully funding the FY2015 NOAA requests for both JPSS and the GOES-R satellite systems, accelerating acquisition of JPSS-2, and fully funding the FY2015 request for both the critical NASA Earth Science Division missions and the DOD Weather Satellite Follow-on program. Embrace cost-effective alternatives for sustaining and enhancing the long-term supply of critical weather and climate data by considering commercial acquisition strategies, commercial data sources, hosted payloads for dedicated sensors, and new innovative measurement capabilities and public-private partnership business models where feasible and appropriate. This includes continued budgetary support for the National Mesonet Program and expanded ground-based observation capabilities. Complete the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations and ensure individual agencies immediately begin implementation.
PRIORITY 2: DROUGHT Equip Americans to better understand and respond to drought by optimizing drought data and information for improved forecasting capabilities
The ability to monitor and forecast drought conditions in the U.S. impacts every American. The cost of everyday goods such as dairy and produce are directly linked to drought conditions. Yet drought has become the new normal for much of the country. In California, for example, more than 98 percent of the land is considered at least abnormally dry and almost 9 percent is in “exceptional” drought as of January 2014. California produces about 50 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables. The lack of adequate water has forced many farmers and ranchers in California to cut production dramatically, thus impacting the supplies of the food most consumers take for granted. According to the Consumer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics in March 2014, the prices of food have seen sharp increases since the start of 2014 and food prices are expected to continue to rise, all due largely to drought.2 Additionally, drought impacts to American consumers do not stop at our own borders. For example, an ongoing drought in Brazil is impacting the prices of coffee, sugar and soybeans.3
National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS): Congress established NIDIS at NOAA “to better inform and provide for more timely decision making to reduce drought related impacts and costs.” NIDIS’s role is to provide forecasts, research and data dissemination for individual localities to use.
The U.S. Drought Monitor complements NIDIS by providing real-time updates on the status of drought in the United States. Figure 2 clearly demonstrates the magnitude and reach of current drought conditions in the U.S. Forecasts provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor indicate continued drought well into summer 2014, therefore exacerbating the impacts to the American agriculture sector and the pocketbooks of Americans across the country.
Landsat Satellite Program: An important component of monitoring and measuring drought in the U.S. is improved forecasting and understanding of land cover and terrain changes. For over 40 years, the Landsat Program has continuously provided an objective, efficient and accurate source of highly calibrated data to catalog natural and man-made changes on the Earth’s surface. The latest satellite of the series, Landsat 8, was launched in February 2013 and is estimated to provide continued coverage until at least 2018. The future of Landsat, however, is uncertain.
Utilize Existing U.S. Government Data Sources: Consideration should also be given to declassifying and re-sampling imagery and data from U.S. Government intelligence gathering satellites.
The U.S. Government does not fully take advantage of valuable imagery from commercial remote sensing satellites. Most of this data is sold to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), an intelligence arm of the Department of Defense, and it largely remains there for use in DOD and Intelligence missions and mapping. For example, one such commercial provider has acquired more than 30 times the landmass of the Earth in high-resolution imagery at less than 1-meter ground resolution and that archive is not being exploited by agencies outside of the DOD and Intelligence Communities.
Recognizing the impact that drought, wildfire and floods can have on the lives of everyday Americans, decision makers must continue to protect life and property by:Providing funding as authorized to maintain and improve the National Integrated Drought Information System. Providing consistent funding for a continuous medium-resolution governmental land imaging program. Establishment of a long-term budget and acquisition strategy, to enable an uninterrupted set of critical Landsat measurements, is not optional; there must be a commitment to replace Landsat satellites as they age or fail. Pursuing innovative commercial space-based solutions to augment the core government Landsat program. The private sector is more than capable of filling this augmenting role. Seeking innovative acquisition strategies from commercial providers to ensure affordability and access to higher-resolution imagery than can be obtained from government civil Earth imaging satellites. Enabling access to older data from U.S. government National Technical Means imaging systems.
PRIORITY 3: WATER RESOURCES Advance U.S. freshwater monitoring and forecasting as a critical component of managing scarce water resources
The ubiquitous nature of water runs deep. Water truly is the lifeblood that keeps society and individuals alive and well. From day-to-day household usage to sustaining a vibrant agricultural sector to using water as a means of transporting goods, understanding and managing the nation’s vital surface and ground water resources has a direct impact on the economy. Too little water results in droughts and water rationing. Too much water can wipe out a community in the blink of an eye.
National Streamflow Information Program. The National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP) within the USGS and in coordination with more than 800 other federal, state, local and tribal agencies, operates over 7,400 streamgages nationwide.
Water resource managers analyze the data to determine how to allocate scarce resources for disparate interests – anywhere from power production, crop irrigation, fisheries and habitat assessments, and even for recreational uses such as kayaking and fly fishing. Civil infrastructure projects such as designing bridges, roads, culverts and water treatment facilities all need the historical streamflow information that this network provides
NASA Research Programs. While the streamgage system provides much-needed real-time data of the state of our fresh- water, NASA research programs are paving the way for advancing monitoring and forecasting capabilities. The NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), launched in March 2002, was designed to map variations of Earth’s gravity field and has provided scientists with information such as changes to ocean currents, groundwater storage and ice sheet variations. The mission is currently in extended operating status and the agency is developing a GRACE Follow-On (GRACE FO) mission.
More recently in February 2014, NASA and Japan launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission designed to improve our understanding of Earth’s water and energy cycle and aid in the forecasting of extreme events. Congress should support the advancement of state-of-the-art water resources analysis and prediction capabilities by:Gradually increasing funding to the National Streamflow Information Program from $33.7 million in FY2014 with a goal of fully funding the program at $122 million annually by FY2020. Ensuring that the infrastructure to transmit and analyze the streamflow data is maintained. This includes keeping the GOES-R satellite development on track. Supporting new data collection techniques, such as NASA’s GRACE or GPM satellites, that measure groundwater and the water cycle from a global perspective.
PRIORITY 4: THE ARCTIC Protect U.S. environmental, economic and national security interests in the Arctic by expanding Earth monitoring and communications capabilities in the region
Over the past ten years, the Arctic has warmed at a rate twice that of the rest of the world. The melting sea and glacial ice has a large number of consequences ranging from increasing levels of freshwater going into the oceans, changing temperatures of ocean currents, altering jet stream patterns, and causing an increase of methane gases into the atmosphere.
Maritime traffic in the Arctic and Alaska, already significant as of 2013, is only expected to continue to increase as melting sea ice opens up passageways for shipping and new regions for resource extraction. See Figure 3.
Sea Ice Measurements and Modeling. Critical to enhancing existing observations will be the successful launch of NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat-2) and GRACE FO by the end of 2017. The mapping gravity data from GRACE FO, for example, will support U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard operations and help ensure safety and security in the Arctic.
To protect U.S. environmental, economic and national security interests in the Arctic, Congress should:Maintain launch dates for NASA’s IceSat-2 and GRACE FO missions to ensure expanded and new Arctic sea ice observations with requested funding and continued program oversight. Support a U.S./Canadian agreement regarding Arctic communications and weather satellite capability to provide for safe operations and improved information within the region.
PRIORITY 5: ECONOMIC COMPETITIVENESS Drive innovation, create jobs, and grow the economy by enhancing the economic competitiveness of U.S. businesses
Understanding the planet and how changes can affect the livelihood of American citizens and our global economic competitiveness is vitally important. Driving innovation and economic growth in this sector starts with adopting public-private partnership business models where feasible to augment national systems with commercial sources, utilize hosted payloads for dedicated sensors, field new innovative measurement capabilities, and provide the private sector with greater access to existing government data sources.
A straightforward assessment of the economic competitiveness of the U.S. Earth observation sector begins with a deliberate review of the current U.S. regulatory regime. The imperative for U.S. manufacturers to compete on a level playing field internationally has only increased in recent years. After the 2012 release of the much anticipated Section 1248 Report to Congress, many within the U.S. satellite industry were hopeful that the potential changes to U.S. trade regulations would enable access to a competitive global commercial satellite marketplace.
However, cuts to U.S. government commercial imagery purchases instead resulted in the further consolidation of the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry. In January 2013, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe acquired Virginia-based GeoEye when the NGA cancelled GeoEye’s ten-year $3.7 billion contract for Earth imagery and other services. In the acquisition, DigitalGlobe acquired the yet-to-be-launched GeoEye-2 satellite and has mothballed the satellite until there is additional demand for high-resolution imagery. Even though DigitalGlobe plans to launch WorldView-3 in August 2014, there is real interest for satellite and payload operators to look to international markets to sustain production capabilities over the long haul.
On June 11, 2014, DigitalGlobe announced that the company received permission to sell its highest quality imagery. Prior to this date, all commercial imaging providers had to resample or degrade the quality of the imagery to half-meter ground resolution. This new modification to its operating license means that DigitalGlobe can sell imagery better than that and when WorldView-3 is launched this summer, the company will be able to see imagery with a remarkable ground resolution of.31-meter or about 12 inches.
Commercial solutions to spur innovation and reduce costs. The National Mesonet Program is a great example of leveraging private innovation. Innovative uses of hosted payloads, for example, could leverage commercial satellite constellations to launch critical Earth observation sensors faster and at a lower cost than via typical government satellite programs. Likewise, purchasing commercial data from U.S. companies could be a cost-effective solution to increase the quantity and quality of data available, and to mitigate expected gaps in key weather monitoring capabilities, while also creating U.S. jobs. The U.S. government should establish a centralized mechanism to consider commercial solutions within the federal Earth observing enterprise.
Recognizing the economic impacts of promoting the global competitiveness of U.S. businesses, the U.S. government should:Optimize U.S. policy and Category XV of the U.S.M.L. so that commercial-class U.S. remote sensing companies are able to successfully compete against foreign suppliers. Enable greater access to existing data via continued support for efforts such as the National Mesonet Program. Establish a centralized mechanism by which commercial solutions can be considered within the federal Earth observing enterprise.
The United States has in place a network of effective and necessary observational tools that aid in the prediction of weather and changes to our climate. This network, however, is fragile and not guaranteed. It is critical that we do not take these systems for granted and instead understand how they all fit together into a global puzzle of information that is important for the protection of U.S. lives, property and economic competitiveness.
1 NOAA Climatic Data Center, Billion Dollar Weather/Climate Disasters, retrieved from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/ events, February 2014.
2 Consumer Price Index release on April 15, 2014 retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.nr0.htm.
3 Why California’s Drought Impacts Every American Who Buys Food, April 14, 2014, retrieved from http://www.weather.com/ news/science/environment/drought-boosts-food-prices-set- biggest-rise-years-report-20140319.