NOAA unveils new satellite monitoring facility

People tour the command center during the dedication ceremony for the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fairbanks Satellite Operations Facility Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 at the NOAA NESDIS Command and Data Acquisition Station off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, Alaska. (AP Photo/ Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Eric Engman)

FAIRBANKS — Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were joined by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new $11.7-million satellite monitoring facility outside Fairbanks.

Located in Gilmore Valley, the 20,000-square-foot Fairbanks Satellite Operations Facility replaces an aging control facility to take over the operation of 11 antenna dishes that control and collect weather information from orbiting weather satellites.

Along with a similar facility in Virginia, the Fairbanks operation is a critical link between satellites that monitor everything from Earth’s atmosphere, land, oceans, poles, the sun and researchers around the world.

A small team of technicians sends the satellites commands and receive data 24 hours per day, sending the information throughout the world to create everything from nightly forecasts to long-term climate research.

“People in Fairbanks may think this facility is a big deal — and it is — but it’s important to more than just people in Fairbanks and Alaska,” said NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco. “It’s actually important to the entire nation and to the world.”

Lubchenco stressed that weather information isn’t just important in putting together the daily weather forecasts, but it also helps policymakers and researchers study, understand and prepare for issues around the world from droughts to heavy snowfall.

Construction on the building began in 2009 to replace the old site, which after earthquakes and years of use, had fallen into disrepair.

In fact, much of the administration’s important monitoring equipment was moved into trailers so data collection could continue in case an earthquake or other disaster destroyed the building.

For many, the opening was a positive sign of federal investment in Alaska and to the Interior.

“It’s an incredible testament to what we can do in Alaska in all kinds of environments,” Begich said during Wednesday’s ceremony.

But despite the celebration, a dark cloud still looms over NOAA.

Earlier this year, congress failed to fund a new polar-orbiting satellite, which is key to monitoring weather in Alaska as well as producing long-term weather predictions.

The failure leaves NOAA behind the ball on developing the new satellite and even if funding is found in the next cycle, there could be a gap of at least 18 months in coverage, Lubchenco said.

“For us in Alaska, predicting the weather and understanding the weather is critical, it’s life or death,” Begich said. “We do have challenges in the future ... I do believe by producing projects like this, making sure they produce the result we’re all looking for is going to be a great asset for us to convince my colleagues that investing in NOAA is the right decision to make.”


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