By Anne Freedman
Scenario: Fierce riots in Mexico, Egypt, Algeria and South Korea continued into their third week as record high food prices kept residents hungry and afraid.
Even in richer areas, especially Japan and the EU, concern was growing about the cost of food after massive, unexpected flooding a few months earlier in the U.S. corn belt left farmers furiously helpless as they watched their crops destroyed right before the harvest in October 2015.
The turmoil in the streets of Mexico, which spilled over into factory-floor fights, busted machinery and shuttered manufacturing facilities, was affecting supply chains and production lines of U.S. automobile manufacturers as well as other manufacturers in California, Texas and New York that relied on imports from the country's neighbor to the South.
And with about six million jobs in the United States dependent on U.S.-Mexico trade, about one in every 24 U.S. employees worried that he or she would be laid off until the situation became calmer.
U.S. ranchers, left without grain for their livestock, had already begun extensively culling their herds -- events that would soon lead to even higher prices of meat and poultry in America, and possibly some empty shelves in U.S. supermarkets.
Fuel prices were also
edging up sharply as ethanol companies were unable to meet production schedules to supply gasoline distributors as needed.
The long-forecasted, yet long-ignored dearth of satellite data had finally come calling.
Scientists blamed the loss of the harvest and the consequences on the decline in earth science data. They had been warning for about a decade that the United States faced the possible devastation of its satellite program because of years of budget cuts.
The U.S. heartland had been caught off guard by the sustained rainfall that vastly overflowed riverbanks and lakes, flooding the breadbasket of America -- the world's largest producer and exporter of corn.
Farmers who had hundreds of acres ruined by flooding wondered how they would ever renew their soil. As they stared out at their cornfields, they contemplated lawsuits and wondered if insurance would help their families make it through the disaster.
They grumbled about the lack of advisories from the National Weather Service and the absence of any disaster preparation.
Even at this point, information was scarce. National and international TV reporters were broadcasting about the cascading effects of the flooding, but the weather on the horizon was still unclear because observations from space were deficient.
As scientists had been warning, many of their eyes in the sky had died. Of those satellites left operating, some were deteriorating rapidly and there were major observational gaps. U.S. civilian environmental satellites had never recovered from the
sharp budget cuts stretching over 15 years, and even though plans had been made and remade to launch new satellites, problems had hampered every project.
Insurers, too, were seeing fallout from the data debacle. They were finding out the models they used to rely on were too often wrong, hurting their underwriting and their bottom lines.
Plus, they were seeing an increase in claims, ranging from crop insurance and weather-risk policies to property/casualty losses and liability lawsuits.
No resolution was in sight.
Analysis: Beginning next year, the United States may find itself short of environmental satellite data.
There is a strong possibility that warnings of extreme weather events may be inaccurate or missed totally, so disaster preparations may be haphazard.
The satellite observational data may offer less information about volcanic ash plumes shooting into the sky, giving air traffic controllers too little time to change flight patterns. There may be less data to support studies of climate fluctuations that can impact management of energy, water and agriculture.
For at least eight years, scientists have been warning that satellite systems are at risk of collapse. And for just as long, reports have been written, testimony has been given, and plans have been made but shrinking budgets, cost overruns and delays have hampered progress.
Now, we are in crunch time.
"We are going to have less data streams coming down," said Stacey Boland, a systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the National Research Council's Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space.
"It's a big deal for science," she said. "It's also a big deal because society uses these data streams and becomes quite dependent on them."
Satellite data not only helps in forecasting weather, but it is also used to observe the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and Earth -- and the interactions between those components, she said.
"We haven't been launching satellites at anything like the rate we need to make up for those we are going to be losing," Boland said. "It takes years to get these satellites up."
The Government Accountability Office, in February, listed the potential weather satellite gap as a "high risk."
"Potential gaps in environmental satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings -- including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods -- will be less accurate and timely," it stated.
For more than 40 years, the GAO reported, the United States has had two separate weather satellite systems: one, an afternoon orbit managed by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that includes two operational satellites and one backup satellite in orbit at all times; and the other, an early morning orbit managed by the Department of Defense.
There's also a mid-morning orbit by a European satellite agency that partners with the United States.
NOAA officials anticipate an afternoon-orbit gap from 18 to 24 months from the time one of its satellites deteriorates to when a replacement satellite is available. But the GAO said that gap could actually last as long as 53 months.
For its part, the DOD currently plans to launch in 2014 and 2020 two satellites that have been in storage since the late 1990s. The satellites "may not work as intended ... and will be quite old by the time they are launched," reported the GAO, with possibly significant understatement, leading to a potential data gap as early as next year.
"We have a number of elderly platforms in orbit," said Guy Seeley, executive vice president of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a climate and weather risk management consultancy and member of the Verisk Analytics family of companies. "Budgets of the programs necessary to maintain satellite observing systems are experiencing a lot of stress.
"If we have less knowledge of the present state of the atmosphere, that reduces the accuracy of the [weather model] predictions," he said.
"We will be entering unchartered territory since the space age began in 1957. We could actually see the number of weather satellites decrease," he said.
That is going to not only impact disaster preparation, but recovery as well. Carriers will be uncertain when, where and in what number to deploy claims adjusters in advance of extreme weather events.
In addition, the sophisticated weather models used to underwrite some agricultural policies could ultimately be hampered by a lack of data, said Julian Roberts, head of the weather risk and agribusiness unit at the Willis brokerage in London.
Weather risk protection requires both a robust and accurate historical data set, he said, as well as accurate data during the contract term for settlement purposes.
Also, the accurate forecasting of drought, precipitation and freezing plays a pivotal role in models used for agricultural management, he said.
"To lose satellite data is potentially significant," Roberts said, noting, however, that "we still have a vast array of measurement data that will continue to be collected without satellite data."
Boland said it is not just that weather warnings won't be given, it's also that warnings may be given too frequently without an extreme event actually occurring.
"When the public finds things to be increasingly uncertain, they tend to take them less seriously," she said. "You want to make sure to understand the level of uncertainty -- and reduce it where possible -- when it comes to forecasting threats and communicating risks."
Seeley said there is little the industry or public can do but lobby their legislators. "The scale of investment you need to put up effective observing platforms is so high that private industry alone is really not interested in doing that," he said.
"I think the program is clearly fixable," Seeley said, but he noted that it "takes years of development and coordination between a number of different organizations to make it work."
"They need to be deciding what we do today," Seeley said, "because it takes a long time to actually make a difference."
ANNE FREEDMAN is senior editor of Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at email@example.com.
April 12, 2013
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