Scientists all over Earth depend on sea ice data from United States military satellites. But one of those satellites recently broke down – and only three aging ones remain. Even worse, the United States Congress said a new backup probe had to be dismantled because they reportedly didn’t want to pay to keep it in storage. Almost four decades of essential Arctic and Antarctic sea ice satellite measurements could soon be disrupted.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) puts together a sea ice record used by scientists worldwide with satellite information. That record is at risk, as a new satellite can’t be launched until at least 2023, according to scientists.
Satellites have aided scientists in measuring Earth’s dramatically shrinking sea ice. Over the years, America’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) has overseen the building of eight F-series satellites monitoring sea ice, but now just three aging probes, DMSP F16, F17, and F18, are operating. And they’re starting to drift out of their orbits. The satellites have lifespans of up to five years – but these three are over eight, 11, and 14 years old.
F19 is the satellite that broke, and should have been replaced with F20, which was being stored by the United States Air Force. But it was dismantled in 2016 after Congress cut funding for the program, according to the Scientific American. The Air Force reportedly spent $518 million on F20.
NSIDC satellite remote sensing expert David Gallaher said, “This is like throwing away the medical records of a sick patient. Our world is ailing and we have apparently decided to undermine, quite deliberately, the effectiveness of the records on which its recovery might be based. It is criminal.”
Scientific American said a Japanese satellite is collecting sea ice data – but it was designed to last five years and is already five years old. A Chinese satellite might offer an alternative – and experts will discuss options at a December meeting of the American Geophysical Union.