With Hurricane Sandy upon us, it's time to take a hard look at our weather-predicting capabilities and the aging satellites that we depend on, writes Jeffrey Kluger in Time. Just last month—shortly before Sandy developed—one such satellite, dubbed GOES-East, began sending out a weak signal. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were lucky enough to have a backup satellite. But if they hadn't, America's forecasting abilities would have gone "partly blind." It's a sign of the times: "There is a coming decline," says a meteorological expert.
We're dependent on a small group of satellites, and "thanks to budget cuts, short-sighted federal planning and the natural life-and-death cycle of satellites, they’re all at risk," Kluger writes. Replacing a satellite can take years—and hundreds of millions of dollars. That's a lot, given that NASA's full annual earth sciences budget is less than $1.5 billion. Yet the equipment offers good bang for the buck: With natural disasters occurring every few years, we save $5 for every dollar we spend on the devices. And the alternative is frightening: "The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society," says another expert. "Our ability to understand changes in Earth’s climate and life support systems will also degrade." Read the full piece here.