In March, sea ice in the Arctic reached its maximum winter extent—a scant 14.57 million square kilometres, the second-smallest in the satellite record of 38 years. We know that thanks to a network of U.S. research satellites. But rather than launch the next one on schedule next year, the United States has instead scrapped it, reports Mongabay, a wildlife- and ecosystem-oriented website, in an in-depth report.
The action means “Arctic scientists—and the world—could very soon for all intents and purposes be blind to changes happening in the Arctic, with no viable international systems coming onboard in time to completely fill in the coverage gap.”
America’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) has launched seven microwave radiometer satellites—the type used to measure sea ice extent—since the mid-1980s, with lifespans of three to five years each, replacing older units as they begin to fail. But with two aging satellites now aloft both beginning to break down, the anti-science Republican majority in the U.S. Congress voted last year to defund the storage and launch of the last unit, which had been intended to carry the program through to 2022. It was disassembled this spring, with the job completed, ironically enough, in March.
A new satellite, originally meant to replace the DMSP series, was in NASA’s launch plans for 2022 or 2023, but the White House has slated it for elimination. “In his proposed ‘skinny’ budget released in March, and again in his more detailed proposed budget [last] week,” correspondent Gloria Dickie writes, “Trump called for cuts to NASA satellite missions, including NOAA’s next two polar orbiting satellites.”
Other nations operate polar observation satellites, but their record-keeping is not easily compared to the U.S. data, nor as complete and reliable, researchers warn.
“It is unfortunate and disturbing that right at the time we’re seeing sea ice cover in rapid transition, we’re in danger of losing some of our key capabilities to observe what’s happening and understand it,” said Mark Serreze, director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.