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Cutbacks imperil government climate studies, panel says

WASHINGTON -- The government's ability to understand and predict hurricanes, drought, and climate changes of all kinds is in danger because of deep cuts facing many Earth satellite programs and major delays in launching some of its most important new instruments, a government panel has concluded.

The two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences, released last week, determined that NASA's earth science budget has declined 30 percent since 2000.

It stands to fall further as funding shifts to plans for a manned mission to the moon and Mars.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, has experienced enormous cost overruns and schedule delays with its premier weather and climate mission.

As a result, the panel said, the United States will not have the scientific information it needs in the years ahead to analyze severe storms and changes in Earth's climate unless programs are restored and funding made available.

"NASA's budget has taken a major hit at the same time that NOAA's program has fallen off the rails," said panel cochairman Berrien Moore III of the University of New Hampshire. "This combination is very, very disturbing, and it's coming at the very time that we need the information most."

NOAA officials have said that 2006 was the warmest year on record in the United States -- part of a highly unusual warming trend over several decades that many scientists attribute to greenhouse gases.

Some scientists think that the atmospheric warming could bring more extreme weather -- longer droughts, reduced snowfall, and more intense hurricanes such as the ones experienced along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

The budget for earth science programs for NASA and NOAA increased substantially in the 1990s, and that resulted in an unprecedented number of weather and climate monitoring missions in the past five years.

But the report found that, as the current satellites deteriorate, the number of space-based Earth observation missions will decline steadily through 2010, as will the number of instruments in space to gather weather, climate, and environmental data.

"If things aren't reversed, we will have passed the high-water mark for our Earth observations," said cochairman Richard Anthes of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

NASA said the report, written by the academy's National Research Council, will be valuable in the agency's planning.

"NASA supports the administration's science policies and priorities, including the way forward on Earth observing systems," it added.

NOAA's administrator, retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., added: "We will be working closely with NASA to assess how our two agencies can best address recommendations. . . . Input from the scientific community is critical and this report will help us."

According to the report, NASA invested about $2 billion annually in Earth-monitoring missions from 1996 to 2001, but that figure, when adjusted for inflation, started a decline in 2002 and is projected to be $1.5 billion annually from 2006 through 2010.

Since President Bush announced plans in 2004 to return astronauts to the moon and later send them to Mars, many involved with the NASA science program have warned that their efforts are being curtailed and will be restricted further in the future.

Moore and Anthes said that about $500 million a year is needed to restore NASA's earth science program to health -- essentially a return to the budgets during the Clinton administration.

The problem at NOAA is different, and involves continuing and costly complications with its National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.