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A GOES 13 image of Hurricane Sandy, seen a few days before landfall.

NOAA's GOES 13 weather satellite has failed for the second time in the last 8 months. GOES-East (as it's commonly known) provides visible, infrared, and water vapor satellite imagery for the eastern United States and the Atlantic Ocean, providing a wide range of uses to meteorologists, from simply being able to see weather features to feeding data into weather models so they can pump out more accurate forecasts.

AccuWeather reports that the satellite's imager failed this morning, and engineers are working to fix the problem:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operating geostationary satellite, known as GOES-East (GOES-13 and GOES-N), experienced trouble with its imaging equipment.

Engineers were working on repairing the imager, via software updates, but were unsuccessful as of Wednesday midday.

The satellite failed once before back in September, when an extreme amount of noise (fuzziness, essentially) in the pictures prompted engineers to take the satellite offline while they worked to fix the problem. The solution back then was to bring online the GOES 14 satellite to act as a substitute while engineers worked to fix the malfunctioning GOES 13. GOES 14 remained in operation for almost a month until engineers could finish repairs on the disabled satellite.

In the meantime, satellite images for the eastern United States and Atlantic Ocean are being provided by GOES 15, which covers the eastern Pacific Ocean and western United States. As a result of the angle at which the satellite has to take pictures, satellite images east of the Rockies are going to appear distorted and blurry until GOES 14 comes online and starts relaying data back to earth.

The Pacific satellite isn't calibrated to clearly see the eastern United States, so this satellite picture of New England is extremely distorted. This will continue until GOES 14 is brought online sometime Thursday.
NOAA has long warned Congress that our satellite system is woefully out of date and in need of replacing, but Congress is too busy screaming about Benghazi and drones to worry about the impending massive hole in our meteorological infrastructure.

The lack of funding for basic things like satellites is only one facet of Congress' War on Weatherâ„¢.

In 2005, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) proposed the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005. The bill, in its essence, attempted to abolish the NWS as we know it by prohibiting the agency from disseminating its weather information to anyone but private corporations (like The Weather Channel or AccuWeather). It's long rumored that Santorum proposed this bill on behalf of Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, also one of his campaign donors.

The National Weather Service itself is facing a long-standing hiring freeze (royally screwing over meteorology students, might I add -- many of the ones I know recently graduated only to work at retail stores and fast food joints), which, added onto the furloughs required under the sequester, is "hobbling operations" at weather forecast offices across the country, including the one that serves Washington DC itself.

Not only are employee cuts harming potentially life-saving forecasting efforts, but our weather models are widely regarded to be inferior to the weather models run by other countries. The ECMWF, commonly known as the European model, is one of the best in the world. Cliff Mass, a brilliant meteorologist who is frequently critical of the United States' inferior weather models, wrote last week about a major break that could make NWS weather models the best in the world:

The National Weather Service will be acquiring a radically more powerful computer system during the next year, one that could allow the U.S. to regain leadership in numerical weather prediction.  Used wisely, this new resource could result in substantial improvements in both global and regional weather predictions.

Using 24 millions dollars from the Superstorm Sandy Supplemental budget, the National Weather Service will be acquired two computers with a capacity 37 times greater than it uses today.

This gives us some hope, but as usual, there's a political force working in the opposite direction of progress: Congress.

One of the crucial duties of the both National Weather Service and of agencies across the globe is to release a weather balloon twice a day to gather meteorological information such as wind speed, direction, temperature, and dew point for a small section of the atmosphere. Hundreds of weather balloons are released across the world twice per day at exactly the same time. The data from these balloons gets fed into the weather models run by various world meteorological agencies -- including the NWS -- and gets used as a basis off of which the weather models make their forecasts. It's arguably the most important piece of data that gets fed into a weather model.

Given their importance, it only makes sense that weather balloons are on the chopping block in Congress. Every few months some congressman, looking to appease his uneducated base, threatens to teach those evil meteorologists a lesson. The sequester is forcing the NWS to cut back on weather balloon launches, which will have immediate impacts on the quality of weather forecasts.

To give you some perspective on how crucial weather balloons are, we release them twice a day at 00 UTC and 12 UTC. In most of the United States, that's roughly early morning and early evening.

The sounding produced by the mid-afternoon special weather balloon launch in Norman, Oklahoma, a few hours before and very near to the EF-5 in Moore, OK.

The early morning release -- also known as a sounding -- shows us what the atmosphere looks like before solar heating starts its business warming the atmosphere up. The early evening release shows us what the atmosphere looks like as we head into the nighttime hours. These two releases are fed into weather models to help predict the weather for up to (and beyond) a week out.

When severe weather occurs like it did in Oklahoma on Sunday and Monday, two balloon releases aren't enough. We're left making educated guesses as to what the winds and temperatures are doing in the atmosphere during peak daytime heating. The remedy to this situation is to release one or more extra weather balloons during the day, to give forecasters the most accurate data to make the most accurate forecasts.

Meteorologists at NOAA's various weather agencies were able to predict Monday's tornado outbreak, which included the EF-5 in Moore, 5 days in advance thanks to weather balloon launches leading to more accurate weather model output.
During both Hurricane Sandy (2012) and Hurricane Irene (2011), two hurricanes that hit the northeastern United States, weather models were having a hell of a time pinpointing where the storm would make landfall. They varied from Florida to Canada. Meteorologists started releasing 4 weather balloons a day across the entire United States, and literally overnight the models grouped together quite nicely right around where the systems ultimately made landfall.

Between Congress declining to fund more satellites, budget cuts putting a hiring freeze and furloughs on NWS employees, and the ever-looming threat of weather balloon cuts, a political War on Weather is well underway. It's an extremely dangerous game to play with life-saving weather forecasts. If Congress' goal is to make private weather companies king of the hill above the NWS, they'd better think again. The private companies get their base data from the very facets of government that Republicans are scrambling to slash. Crippling this country's forecasting ability is a death sentence to anyone and anything in the way of extreme weather, be they private citizens or public corporations.

Step up, Congress. By killing weather forecasts you are killing people.

This is your Benghazi.

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