Weather Satellites Link Climate Research and National Security

While the Pentagon islooking to the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellitesprimarily to support its worldwide military operations, the system also willplay a key role in climate research that many experts believe has growingrelevance to national security, according to program officials.

The NationalPolar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) lost severaldedicated climate research instruments in a June 2006restructuring but still has significant capabilities in this area,according to Dan Stockton, a recently retired Air Force colonel who now servesas program executive officer for NPOESS at the U.S. Commerce Department.

Several former militaryand intelligence officials over the past year have drawn a link between climateresearch and national security. One of the most recent examples is a report bythe Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a NewAmerican Security, two Washington think tanks, entitled "The Age ofConsequences: the Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of GlobalClimate Change."

The authors of thereport, released Nov. 5, include James Woolsey, former director of centralintelligence, and Leon Fuerth, who served as national security advisor to AlGore during his vice presidency.

The report says that ifclimate change follows current trends, it could result in conflicts sparked byresource scarcity, disease proliferation and population migrations.

If the trends worsen,those types of effects could lead to large-scale conflicts, potentiallyinvolving countries with nuclear weapons, according to the report.

The report does not referto NPOESS, which is funded jointly by the Air Force and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Commerce Department. But Stockton, in an Oct. 31 interview, said those spacecraft can play an important role inthis area because they still will be able to measure 14 of the 26 variablephenomena deemed by scientists to play a major role in climate change.

Some of the variablesthat NPOESS will monitor as part of climate research include water surfacelevels and temperature, sea ice, snow cover and cloud properties.

The Nov. 5 report notesthat snow levels can play into water supplies, particularly in mountainousareas where snow on a mountain can hydrate a region for agriculture when itmelts in the springtime.

Rising water levels couldplay a key role in the disappearance of low-lying coastal areas, leading to amassive migration of hundreds of millions of people, with the most severescenarios involving billions of people being forced to relocate, according tothe report.

The NPOESS satellites arebeing built by Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., andscheduled to start launching around 2013.

Members of the HouseScience and Technology Committee raised concern during a June hearing about theimpact on climate research of the 2006 NPOESS restructuring, which was orderedafter the program ran into technical difficultythat drove up its cost dramatically.

A program official saidthe removal of dedicated climate science instruments will have only a limitedimpact on the NPOESS system's contribution to climate change research. But thisofficial also acknowledged that some important measurements that have beenlost.

The elimination of theTotal Solar Irradiance Sensor, for example, will diminish the satellites'contribution to studies intended to differentiate between natural causes ofglobal warming and those associated with human activity, the official said.

The restructuring alsodropped the Earth Radiation Budget Sensor, which monitors subtle long-termshifts in climate patterns. The impact of this move will be felt on thesatellites that follow the first NPOESS platform, which will feature the Cloudsand Earth Radiant Energy System that can take similar measurements, the programofficial said.

The restructuring alsodegraded but did not eliminate altogether the satellites' ability to providemeasurements of ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere, the program officialsaid.

The White Housecurrently is working with NASA and the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration on alternatives for taking the measurements that were lost ordegraded under the restructured NPOESS plan. Among the options is placingseveral instruments on dedicated climate monitoring satellites.

Stockton said the design for the first NPOESS satellite islocked down as part of an effort to keep down risk on the program. However, theclimate research instruments could be restored on the satellites that follow,assuming their interface designs and power requirements do not change, he said.

However, restoring thesemeasurements would require funding from outside the NPOESS program, Stockton said. Those instruments also would need to be ready two years before delivery ofa given NPOESS satellite, he said.

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