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| Earth on Oct 04, 2013

What if NOAA were completely shut down?

The U.S. government shutdown has halted all NASA activities. What if it halted all of NOAA, too, instead of only about 55% of it, as now?

Now that the United States federal government has officially shut itself down, we U.S. citizens are encountering many issues such as unpaid furloughs, information flow in some areas that is slow to non-existent, plus a hurt on our economy. One of the agencies that has been largely shut down is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Fortunately, NOAA has been able to keep services up and running for websites necessary to protect lives and property. For example, NOAA’s National Weather Service offices from around the country continue to update American citizens on the weather. While this is a great service in difficult and confusing times for us in the U.S., I wondered what would happen if the U.S. government decided to shut all of NOAA down and not let it operate until our Congressional representatives figure things out. I hope this post will provide a wake-up call about how valuable NOAA is to us in the United States. If all areas of NOAA were in a shutdown mode, there would be devastating effects for the United States.

Want to visit a site from NOAA? Well, you might come across this message during the shutdown. Image Credit: NOAA

Want to visit a site from NOAA? Well, you might come across this message during the shutdown. Image Credit: NOAA

Let’s look at some parts of NOAA already closed due to the federal shutdown. According to Commerce Department Documents, 6,601 of the 12,001 employees (55%) of NOAA employees have been sent home without pay. The majority of our climate research websites are no longer available. As a weather blogger, whose goal is to keep you informed about weather and climate issues, I’ve had issues finding data to present to you, because I typically use websites such as the National Climatic Data Center, which is currently displaying this message:

Due to the Federal government shutdown, NOAA.gov and most associated web sites are unavailable.

According to Andrew Freedman of Climate Central, a shutdown could cause major setbacks in the field of satellite technology. He wrote:

Any further delays in developing new satellites will increase the likelihood and length of such a gap. A short shutdown will allow the contractors that are building the new satellites, including new polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites, to keep working using funding left over from fiscal year 2013 appropriations. But, according to NOAA, if the furloughs last beyond 1 to 2 weeks, the satellite production schedule could slip.

Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang lists several examples of how the federal government shutdown will weaken the weather and climate enterprise:

Most weather and climate-related activities not directly tied to the protection of life and property are on hold. This means atmospheric research conducted not just at NOAA, but also at NASA, EPA, and the Department of Interior among others has stopped.

Storm in the Gulf of Mexico could be a major player in the Southeast by the end of this weekend. Image Credit: NOAA

Storm in the Gulf of Mexico could be a major player in the Southeast by the end of this weekend. Image Credit: NOAA

Facts (Things that are really happening):

For the next three to five days, the United States will have to monitor a strong cold front capable of producing winter weather in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska and potentially a severe weather event across Iowa, southern Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, a tropical system is developing in the Gulf of Mexico and will likely impact the Gulf coast by Sunday.

With winter weather, severe weather, and tropical weather all in the forecast, how could we cope as country if NOAA were completely shutdown? In other words, all radars and satellites would not be operational and National Weather Service employees from all 50 states would be furloughed and unavailable to issue advisories, watches, or warnings.

Artist's image of newest Landsat satellite, now orbiting Earth.  This satellite is continuing Landsat's near-continuous 40-year record of observing Earth changes. In a government shutdown, this would be just one of many satellites we would be unable to use.

Artist’s image of newest Landsat satellite, now orbiting Earth. This satellite is continuing Landsat’s near-continuous 40-year record of observing Earth changes. In a complete government shutdown, Landsat would be one of many satellites we would be unable to use.

How a world without NOAA would affect you

You would immediately feel the impact if NOAA were completely shutdown with the rest of the government. If all of the local National Weather Service offices were included in this shutdown, all of the weather discussions, forecasts, and alerts would no longer be issued. Radars and satellite data would not be able to be properly maintained, and thus we would have no visual idea or understanding about the weather patterns across the United States. What about the Weather Channel you ask? It relies on NOAA’s National Weather Service for its products, as do meteorologists across the country trying to make forecasts. The only active radars that would be able to still operate would be the local or “in-house” radars that run from television stations.

What’s more, upper air balloon launches to sample the data in our atmosphere and the use of that data for our weather models to improve weather forecasting would no longer happen. Our GFS model would not contain enough assimilated data to properly work as radiosonde and satellite information would not exist.

How about that app you use every day for your weather updates? Without NOAA, you would find that your app has become useless, too, as it relies on data provided by products from NOAA.

In other words, without NOAA, we would be back in the days of lifting a wet finger to the wind to tell which way the wind is blowing. The United States would become completely vulnerable to disasters that nowadays can be easily avoided. Flights would likely be canceled. How will they know where they are navigating if NOAA were shutdown?

For many things, we depend on NOAA.

If NOAA was completely shutdown, we would not be able to track the tropical cyclone developing in the Gulf of Mexico. Image Credit: Weatherbell

If NOAA was completely shutdown, we would not be able to track the tropical cyclone developing in the Gulf of Mexico. Image Credit: Weatherbell

Facts in this fictitious scenario:

If all of NOAA was shutdown today, we would have major problems. Tropical Storm Karen is currently in the Gulf of Mexico, and it looks almost certain that it will hit someone along the Gulf Coast. Without NOAA, we would not be able to track it via satellite imagery.

Satellites allow us to not only obtain pictures of Earth, but they also collect information about our atmosphere. We would be blind, defenseless, and extremely vulnerable to the whims of local weather. One day Pensacola, Florida would be enjoying sunny skies and then 24 hours could be feeling hurricane conditions.

Know this. The warnings you receive locally are not created by your local TV meteorologists. The local National Weather Service office – part of NOAA – issues the local warnings. TV weathermen would have to issue their own alerts and warnings, and you can imagine where that would leave us: confused. One station might call for a tornado warning while the other station believes it is simply a strong thunderstorm. How would you know who to believe?

What’s more, if a disaster took place, the federal government would not be able to assist. FEMA would not be there. Should I continue? I think I proved my point. We would face major problems.

If you try to access NASA, this is what you get.

If you try to access NASA, this is what you get.

In reality, all of NOAA has not shut down. It would be too dangerous for the country if it did. NOAA’s National Weather Service offices continue to operate today despite the federal government shutdown. Hurricane Hunters will still be able to fly into the system developing in the southern Gulf of Mexico to provide us information on how intense the system is becoming. We still have satellites and radar to make weather forecasts.

So you think a government shutdown – even a more thorough shutdown that included all of NOAA – could not affect you? Think again. A United States without NOAA would be devastating to the U.S. economy. Jobs would be lost until the government shutdown was lifted. Lives and property would be extremely vulnerable, especially along the eastern U.S. coast as hurricane season continues.

Bottom line: The U.S. government shutdown has halted all NASA activities. What if it halted all of NOAA, too, instead of only about 55% of it, as now? The effects would be tremendous and very negative for all of us. We need NOAA.