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NOAA working to overcome aging satellites

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Updated: 5/17/2013 7:50 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Fla -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on a plan to deal with aging satellites that could leave the East Coast with reduced hurricane tracking capabilities.

Starting as soon as next year, weather satellites that are orbiting the earth will start to go offline.

Those satellites gather crucial data to create storm path predictions for systems that form in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

They monitor water temperature, log lightning flash rates, even over water, and track systems as they form off the coast of Africa and move across the ocean.

State and local governments use those predictions to order evacuations, and make decisions about response preparations.

But age is a concern.

"One of the satellites we're counting on is starting to get older.  We've already had one semi-die, so we're having to figure out how to switch these satellites around to maintain the coverage that is needed, " says Steve Letro, a former meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.

The General Accountability Office sees the satellite issue as a high-risk problem.   Their report suggests a satellite outage could last between 17 and 53 months.   That means we could go as long as six hurricane seasons without full coverage from the weather satellites.

"All of the sudden you would start seeing larger areas for hurricane warnings because the accuracy just isn't there.  You start seeing longer fused warnings for longer periods of time," Letro says.

Forced budget cuts known as sequestration could have an impact on storm tracking this hurricane season.   NOAA could be forced to reduce storm tracking flights.   They typically fly right into a hurricane several times before landfall.

NOAA is working on other measures until they can launch new satellites.   Among the options, working with European countries to share satellite data.  Or forming partnerships with private companies who have their own satellites in space to collect that data.

A NOAA spokesperson tells Action News they could announce an option as soon as next week.
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