Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data
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 the end of their expected life spans. However, these programs have troubled legacies of cost increases, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges that have resulted in reduced functionality and slips to planned launch dates. As a result, the continuity of satellite data is at risk.
Officials from the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) acknowledge that there is a risk of a gap in polar satellite data in the afternoon orbit, between the time that the current polar satellite is expected to reach the end of its life and the time when the next satellite is expected to be in orbit and operational. This gap could span up to a year or more, depending on how long the current satellite lasts and whether there are any delays in launching or operating the new one. Similarly, while federal agencies do not anticipate gaps in geostationary satellite observations, such a gap could occur if satellites currently in orbit do not last as long as anticipated or if the major satellite acquisition currently underway encounters schedule delays.
According to NOAA program officials, 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. Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property, and our nation’s critical infrastructures in danger. Given the criticality of satellite data to weather forecasts, the likelihood of significant gaps, and the potential impact of such gaps on the health and safety of the U.S. population and economy, we concluded that the potential gap in weather satellite data is a high-risk area and added it to the High Risk List in 2013.
 In our 2013 high-risk update, we reported that the gap could span from 17 to 53 months or more, depending on how long the current satellites last and whether there are any delays in launching or operating the new one. More recently, NOAA officials reported that the gap could be as short as 3 months because of the relatively strong performance of the current satellite and their plan to reduce the expected length of the next satellite’s on-orbit checkout period. However, we believe that the gap could occur sooner and last longer than NOAA anticipates if the launch is delayed, the on-orbit checkout takes longer than anticipated, or space debris causes the current satellite to fail early.
NOAA has demonstrated leadership commitment in mitigating data gaps on its polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites by making decisions about how to mitigate potential gaps and by making progress in implementing multiple mitigation activities. However, capacity concerns—including computing resources needed for some polar satellite mitigation activities, and the limited time available for integration and testing prior to the scheduled launch of the next geostationary satellite—continue to present challenges. In addition, while both programs have updated their satellite contingency plans, work remains to implement and oversee efforts to ensure that mitigation plans will be viable if and when they are needed.
Polar-orbiting Weather Satellites
NOAA has met the criterion of demonstrating a strong leadership commitment to mitigating gaps in polar-orbiting satellite data. NOAA management made decisions on the specific technical, programmatic, and management steps the agency would take to ensure that satellite mitigation options are viable, and, in February 2014, issued an updated satellite mitigation plan. Moreover, NOAA began implementing 21 mitigation projects, including the following efforts: improve high-performance computing capacity, assimilate data from new sources into weather models, and explore how manned and unmanned aircraft observations could increase the accuracy of numerical weather predictions for high impact weather events. These projects are supported primarily by the weather satellite data gap mitigation reserve fund from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013.
NOAA partially meets the criterion for having the capacity to address the risk of a satellite data gap. While the agency is moving forward on mitigation projects, more work remains to be done before these mitigation options are in place and it is unlikely that key options will be available in time to address a potential near-term gap. Specifically, NOAA has experienced setbacks in completing mitigation projects due to delays in obtaining sufficient computing resources. For example, the availability of high-performance computing capacity for research and development purposes fell short of users’ needs by 256 percent in 2014, and the National Weather Service’s (NWS) high-performance computing upgrades for operational systems are to be half of what was expected by February 2015. Since almost all of NOAA’s gap mitigation projects require one or both types of computing capacity, the shortfalls have resulted in reduced scope or delayed work. In 2014, we recommended that the agency investigate ways to prioritize mitigation projects with the greatest potential benefit to weather forecasting. NOAA agreed and noted actions it is taking to address this recommendation.
NOAA partially meets the criterion for having a plan to address the risk of a polar satellite data gap. In February 2014, NOAA issued an updated satellite mitigation plan, which includes several improvements over its prior plan. For example, NOAA expanded its plan to include additional mitigation alternatives. However, the agency has not yet addressed key shortfalls in its mitigation plan, including providing key information about the cost and impact of the mitigation options, and establishing when the testing of selected options would be completed. Until NOAA fully addresses the shortfalls in its contingency plan, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate potential gaps in polar satellite coverage. In 2014, we made a recommendation to NOAA to address the shortfalls in its mitigation plans; NOAA agreed and noted actions it is taking to address this recommendation.
NOAA partially meets the criterion for monitoring progress in addressing risks. While NOAA is providing some oversight of its many gap mitigation projects and activities, the agency’s oversight efforts are not consistent or comprehensive. For example, only one of three NOAA organizations had briefed management on a monthly basis on the status of mitigation projects, as required in the agency’s satellite mitigation plan. In addition, as of December 2014, NOAA had not yet reported progress on 9 mitigation activities outlined in its contingency plan. We recommended that NOAA ensure that the relevant entities provide monthly and quarterly progress updates on all mitigation projects and activities. NOAA agreed and noted actions it is taking to address this recommendation.
NOAA partially meets the criterion for demonstrating progress in mitigating the risk of a gap in polar-orbiting satellite data. While NOAA has made progress in mitigation activities, certain gap mitigation projects have experienced delays. For example, while NWS was to upgrade its high-performance computing capacity for operational systems by December 2014, it now plans for an interim upgrade with about half of the planned capacity to be completed by February 2015. Data sources that require further development and further enhancements of model resolution will need to wait until the full upgrade is completed in July 2016. As another example, a project to conduct observing system experiments that provide quantitative information about the anticipated degradation to NOAA’s numerical weather prediction models is to be delayed by 4 months—in part because the computing resources it received were 60 percent less than required.
Until NOAA demonstrates that it is making swift and effective progress in mitigating potential near-term gaps in polar satellite data and that it is effectively overseeing these important efforts, there will be a growing risk that degraded forecasts and warnings will lead to negative impacts on the U.S. population and economy. As noted earlier, we recommended NOAA prioritize its mitigation projects with the greatest potential benefit to weather forecasting. NOAA agreed and noted actions it is taking to address this recommendation.
Geostationary Weather Satellites
NOAA has demonstrated leadership by revising and improving its geostationary satellite contingency plans, updating an assessment of the viability of the GOES-R program schedule, and taking steps to ensure that the launch date for the GOES-R satellite remains on schedule.
NOAA has partially met the criterion for ensuring it has the capacity to address the risk of a gap in backup coverage. Over the past several years, the agency has demonstrated its ability to mitigate operational satellite outages by monitoring the health of the satellites and by moving a backup satellite into operation when needed. However, the GOES-R program is near capacity in terms of the time it has available to complete critical integration and testing activities before the anticipated launch date of March 2016. Any delay in the anticipated launch date would extend the time that NOAA might need to operate without a backup satellite.
NOAA has partially met the criterion for having an action plan to address the risk of a geostationary satellite data gap. In February 2014, NOAA released a new satellite contingency plan that includes procedures for conducting regular satellite maneuvers to simulate contingency scenarios and for working with the user community to account for differences in product coverage under contingency scenarios. It also provides more details on contingency scenarios, roles and responsibilities for contingency operations, and detailed procedures for what is to occur during an event. However, the plan does not sufficiently address strategies for preventing a launch delay, timelines and triggers to prevent a launch delay, and whether any of its mitigation strategies will meet minimum performance levels. In 2014, we made recommendations to NOAA to address the shortfalls in its mitigation plans; NOAA agreed with these recommendations and noted actions it is taking to address them.
NOAA has met the criterion for monitoring progress in addressing its risks. Officials responsible for satellite operations actively monitor the health of the satellite constellation and are prepared to implement contingency operations if they are warranted. In addition, GOES-R program officials actively monitor and analyze the program schedule, and have taken action to remove or defer functionality in order to keep the satellite launch date on track. Program officials also regularly report to senior managers on progress and risks.
NOAA has partially met the criterion for demonstrating progress in mitigating risks. While NOAA had made significant progress in developing and testing the GOES-R satellite, in December 2014, we reported on concerns with recent delays in key program milestones and on NOAA’s ability to complete critical testing and integration work in the time available before launch. If the launch of the GOES-R satellite is delayed and one of the two remaining operational satellites experiences a problem, NOAA could experience a gap in satellite data coverage. Until NOAA ensures that its contingency plan includes strategies for preventing or limiting a launch delay, there is an increased risk that the agency and satellite data users across the country will be poorly prepared for a near-term satellite data gap. In 2014, we made recommendations to NOAA to address the shortfalls in its mitigation plans, including plans for mitigating any launch delays. NOAA agreed with these recommendations and noted the actions it is taking to address them.
In response to our prior recommendations, NOAA established plans to address potential gaps in satellite data for both its polar-orbiting and geostationary satellite systems. However, these plans are only the beginning. In order to fully address the risk of gaps in weather satellite data, NOAA should implement our recent recommendations (discussed above) to implement and oversee efforts to ensure that its mitigation plans will be viable if and when they are needed. For the polar-orbiting satellites, NOAA should address shortfalls in its satellite gap mitigation plan, including the following: providing an assessment of available mitigation alternatives based on their costs and potential impacts, establishing a schedule with meaningful timelines for mitigation activities, and defining completion dates for testing and validating viable alternatives. NOAA must also investigate ways to prioritize the mitigation projects with the greatest potential benefit to weather forecasting in the event of a gap, and ensure that the relevant entities provide management with regular updates on all gap mitigation projects.
For the geostationary satellites, NOAA should add information to the GOES satellite contingency plan on steps planned or underway to mitigate potential launch delays, the potential impact of failure scenarios, and the minimum performance levels expected under such scenarios.
GAO-15-47: Published: Dec 16, 2014. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 2015.
GAO-15-60: Published: Dec 16, 2014. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 2015.
GAO-14-338SP: Published: Apr 15, 2014. Publicly Released: Apr 15, 2014.
GAO-13-676: Published: Sep 11, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2013.
GAO-13-597: Published: Sep 9, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2013.
GAO-13-276SP: Published: Apr 17, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 17, 2013.