Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data
Federal agencies have had challenges in acquiring new weather satellites, which could have led to a gap in weather satellite data and affected the accuracy of forecasts and extreme weather warnings. However, both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have made significant progress in mitigating the potential for gaps in weather satellite data. Consequently, GAO removed this issue area from its High Risk List, but will continue to monitor both NOAA and DOD efforts to develop and launch future weather satellites.
The United States relies on two complementary types of satellite systems for weather observations and forecasts:
(1) polar-orbiting satellites that provide a global perspective every morning and afternoon, and
(2) geostationary satellites that maintain a fixed view of the United States.
Both types of systems are critical to weather forecasters, climatologists, and the military, who map and monitor changes in weather, climate, the oceans, and the environment.
Federal agencies are currently planning and executing major satellite acquisition programs to replace existing polar and geostationary satellite systems that are nearing or beyond the end of their expected life spans. Specifically, the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for the polar satellite program that crosses the equator in the afternoon and for the geostationary satellite program. The Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for the polar satellite program that crosses the equator in the early morning.
However, these programs had troubled legacies of cost increases, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges. For example, a major weather satellite program was disbanded in 2010 after experiencing significant cost increases and schedule delays. As a result, the continuity of weather satellite data was at risk. According to NOAA, a satellite data gap would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events—such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—which would place lives, property, and critical infrastructure in danger.
Given how critical satellite data are to weather forecasts, as well as the likelihood of significant gaps in weather satellite data and the potential impact of such gaps, GAO added this issue to its High Risk List in 2013.
However, NOAA and DOD have made significant progress in addressing this issue in recent years.
- NOAA made improvements to its geostationary weather satellite program by improving its gap mitigation contingency plans, ensuring it had the capacity to integrate and test the next geostationary satellite, and launching the satellite in November 2016.
- NOAA addressed shortfalls we identified in its polar-orbiting satellite gap mitigation plans. In November 2017, the agency successfully launched the first satellite under its polar weather satellite program. It is also working to build and launch the next satellite by 2022.
- With congressional support and oversight, DOD established plans for its next weather satellite program, awarded a contract for that satellite, and determined how it plans to address additional requirements. DOD plans to launch weather satellites in 2021, 2022, and 2024.
By establishing gap mitigation plans and demonstrating progress in acquiring and launching satellites, NOAA and DOD have addressed the concerns that placed this issue on the High Risk List. Consequently, GAO removed the High Risk designation from this issue area in 2019.
While the agencies’ actions have demonstrated significant progress, there is a continuing risk of a gap in satellite data if a legacy satellite reaches the end of its life before a new satellite becomes operational. Moving forward, GAO will continue to monitor both NOAA and DOD efforts to develop and launch future weather satellites.
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