A growing chorus of scientists is raising the alarm over reports of Trump administration budgets cuts that would affect climate change research and hurricane forecasting.
On Monday, 32 Florida scientists sent a letter to the president voicing worry over reports that the Department of Commerce, which overseas the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has proposed cutting 17 percent from its budget, with the nation’s network of satellites taking the biggest hit. The satellites include a system of polar orbiters that provide critical data from the top and bottom of the planet and help scientists understand two of the biggest threats facing the peninsula.
“It would be like looking at the world with a half-blind eye and not two good eyes,” said Frank Muller-Karger, a University of South Florida oceanographer who was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy by President George W. Bush.
Last week, the Washington Post obtained a four-page budget memo outlining the cuts. The cuts were so steep and in such critical areas that scientists immediately sounded the alarm. Cuts also included the popular and bipartisan Sea Grants program, which matches local money for coastal research.
A Department of Commerce spokesman said Monday that agency would not comment.
A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said his office had not been provided any details. But in a statement, Nelson said, “We’re not going to allow that to happen. NOAA’s mission is too important.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s staff declined to comment on the record about the reports.
In their letter sent Monday, scientists from the state’s major universities including Florida State, Florida A&M, the University of Florida and University of Miami, warned that the NOAA cuts threatened to undo significant advances in understanding changes on the earth that affect both society and industry.
“There is increasing concern among the scientific community that politics could interfere, stymie, or even silence crucial scientific observations,” the letter said.
Scaling back observations would essentially limit scientists’ ability to measure the planet’s vital signs and detect early signs of sickness.
They are particularly worried about advances in the nation’s satellite network, which measures everything from sea surface temperatures to the color of the ocean. Advanced sensors have dramatically improved not just the quality of the information but the amount. That means better forecasts for hurricanes and other extreme events, including wildfires.
“With reductions in research, hurricane forecasts will never improve, and without satellite data those same forecasts won’t even exist,” NOAA’s former chief scientist, Richard Spinrad, said in an email Monday.
The network has also helped tracked pollution, including the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill, as well as the spread of red tide and dangerous algae outbreaks that can imperil fish. Other data can let fishery managers know what areas of the ocean are available for harvest, Muller-Karger said.
“They make maps of the entire planet every three days or so,” he said. “All of those things would be hampered if the government decides they’re not going to do it.”
The satellites have also helped document polar ice sheets, which help provide information on the pace of climate change and which the Trump administration has openly questioned.
Some have suggested relying on private satellites or other countries’ satellites to provide the information as a cheaper alternative. But Muller-Karger called that idea “ridiculous for many reasons.”
Not all countries share information, he said, including China and Russia, which operate the most number of satellites after the U.S. Relying on outside sources could also pose a significant security threat, he said.
Satellites often take years to develop, build and launch. The satellites now in orbit are based on 1990s technology, Muller-Karger said. Derailing that work now could put the U.S. decades behind the technology of other countries.
“Right now we have measurements we’ve never had before. We can look at things that affect fishing and pollution in coastal waters. We can track temperatures in the ocean on a daily basis over a long period of time in a way we never did. So we would going backward if we cut these programs,” he said. “We can’t just pretend things are going to be OK if we don’t look out the window.”
Update: Following the publication of this story, Rubio’s staff clarified their response to say they could not comment because they had not seen details.
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