Weather satellites on the brink: How life on Earth may be affected

Hurricane Sandy is seen in this infrared satellite image taken at 10:45 a.m. ET Oct. 24, 2012.
Hurricane Sandy is seen in this infrared satellite image taken at 10:45 a.m. ET Oct. 24, 2012.
NOAA/National Weather Service

(CBS News) The government is scrambling to deal with a generation of weather satellites that are about to die. It could mean life-and-death consequences here on Earth.

As Hurricane Sandy moved up the Atlantic Coast last fall, government forecasters accurately predicted the storm would slam first into New Jersey, and then continue on to New York City, inflicting massive damage there and beyond. Without that advance warning, which led to mass evacuations, there likely would have been significantly more injuries and deaths. The accurate forecast was made possible in large part by a system of five government satellites that orbit the Earth from pole to pole. The satellites bristle with cameras and sensors that send back an endless stream of information on everything from temperature to cloud formations to wind and sea currents.

But the system will soon be in peril. Some of the satellites are expected to cease functioning as soon as next year, while replacements are not due to be launched until 2017.

In a recent report the U.S. Government Accountability Office said there is a high probability the satellite system will be less than fully-operational for at least 17 months.

During that gap, the ability to predict the path of major storms will be severely diminished. Gene Dodaro, head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said recently: "The prediction of the path for Superstorm Sandy would have shown it going out to sea and not hitting New Jersey at all."

Another example is the 2010 East Coast storm known as "Snowmageddon." Without the full complement of satellites the forecast would have been for at least 10 inches less snow than actually fell.

GAO blames the looming satellite crisis on more than a decade of chronic government mismanagement, including missed deadlines, cost overruns, and design flaws. GAO primarily faults the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the satellites in conjunction with NASA and the Pentagon.

In a statement, Ciaran Clayton, director of Communications for NOAA, told CBS News: "The administration is committed to providing the American public with life- and property-saving forecasts and warnings. NOAA continues to develop mitigation plans for any potential gap..."

Those mitigation plans include trying to move up the launch dates of the replacement satellites, and temporarily relying on defense department satellites, or even foreign satellites. But even with that, GAO says there's still a high probability there will be a satellite gap. Under the worst case scenario it could begin next year and last more than four years.

For Chip Reid's full report, watch the video above.