Your Money's Worth
August 1, 2017
In 1994, the US Coast Guard stopped training its cadets in Morse code and changed the name of the rating from “radioman” to “information systems technician.”
In 2010 the Coast Guard Navigation Center in Alexandria, Virginia coordinated the shutdown of the North American Long Range Navigation-C signal.
The reason for both of these actions was the advent of modern technology. While some may disagree with the decision, one can be sure that modern technology has taken the place of the older systems.
Last month, longtime reader Mike Trainor in Sitka, Alaska alerted us to another impending shutdown by the Feds. As part of a 15 percent cut to the US Geological Survey’s budget proposed by President Trump, the service’s roughly $1.9 million geomagnetism program would be eliminated. Unlike the examples above, there is no technological substitute for the geomagnetism program.
The Magnetic Field affects GPS and the satellites it uses. For more traditional navigation using marine charts and topographic maps, the magnetic declination is changing over time. The Geomagnetism staff at USGS works to keep this information updated.
The USGS monitors changes in the earth’s magnetic field, providing data that help NOAA and the US Air Force track magnetic storms due to solar activity. Such storms can disrupt radio communication, GPS systems and, if severe enough, the electric power grid. The program operates 14 magnetic observatories across the United States and its territories, four of which are in Alaska. The Sitka Magnetic Observatory has been in operation collecting data on the earth’s magnetic field for more than 116 years.
The Air Force and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as well as NASA are also customers of the Geo-mag program.
Trainor says the proposal is extremely shortsighted and very dangerous to the safety and security of our nation. He notes that the collected data is used for navigation of vessels at sea and aircraft of every type.
“With the increased threat being posed by North Korea,” Trainor asks, “is it really a good idea to cut this program?”
Trainor further notes that the Geo Hazard group monitors the magnetic field to predict solar flares and solar storms, which can have a huge effect on the country’s power grids.
New oil drilling technologies and pipeline protection depend on knowing what the magnetic field is doing, Trainor says, offering an explanation from Alaska Pipeline engineers: “Time-varying magnetic fields induce time-varying electric currents in conductors. Variations of the Earth’s magnetic field induce electric currents in long conducting pipelines and surrounding soil. These time-varying currents create voltage swings in the pipeline-cathodic protection system and make it difficult to maintain pipe-to-soil potential in the safe region. During magnetic storms, these variations can be large enough to keep a pipeline in the unprotected region for some time, which can reduce the lifetime of the pipeline”.
“Over the past several decades they have automated many functions and have cut way back on salaries and operational costs,” he says. “Observatories are operated by contractors who are all small businesses employing one or two part-time people.”
Trainor is amazed with what the program has done with a $1.9 million budget.
Meanwhile, if you want to get more “likes” on your social media posts or add more followers on Twitter, the Department of Defense is backing research ($2.4 million) to determine how to be more popular online.
The Department of Homeland Security spent more than $1.7 million paying the salaries of 88 employees who have been placed on administrative leave for disciplinary purposes, some for as long as 3 years, and last year the longest zipline in California opened thanks to a $1.8 million federal grant.
A government that can spend $1.8 million on a California zipline should be able to find a similar amount to fund a program contributes to national security, ship and airplane navigation, infrastructure and resource stability.
Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org