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Budget cuts and poor management may be jeopardizing the future of our eyes in orbit - America's fleet of environmental satellites, vital tools for forecasting hurricanes, protecting water supplies and predicting global warming.
"The system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse," said Richard A. Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "Every year that goes by without the system being addressed is a problem."
Anthes chairs a National Academy of Sciences committee that advises the federal government on developing and operating environmental satellites. In a report issued last year, the committee warned that "the vitality of Earth science and application programs has been placed at substantial risk by a rapidly shrinking budget."
Since that report came out, NASA has chosen to cancel or mothball at least three planned satellites in an effort to save money. Cost overruns have delayed a new generation of weather satellites until at least 2010 and probably 2012, leading a Government Accountability Office official to label the enterprise "a program in crisis."
Scientists warn that the consequences of neglecting Earth-observing satellites could have more than academic consequences. It is possible that when a big volcano starts rumbling in the Pacific Northwest, a swarm of tornadoes sweeps through Oklahoma or a massive hurricane bears down on New Orleans, the people in harm's way - and those responsible for their safety - will have a lot less information than they'd like about the impending threat.