Weather Forecasting:

Unmet Needs and Unknown Costs Warrant Reassessment of Observing System Plans

AIMD-95-81: Published: Apr 21, 1995. Publicly Released: Apr 21, 1995.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Weather Service's (NWS) Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), focusing on: (1) the extent to which NWS has addressed ASOS operational problems; (2) the costs of resolving these operational problems; and (3) whether NWS plans for enhancing ASOS are reasonable.

GAO found that: (1) six of the eight sensors in the ASOS system do not meet key performance specifications; (2) ASOS shortfalls are caused by contractor failure to deliver products that meet specifications and government failure to furnish sufficient equipment; (3) ASOS reliability problems surfaced after deployment because NWS did not perform reliability testing prior to deployment; (4) NWS does not have adequate personnel or integrated information systems for it to isolate and correct ASOS failures at Federal Aviation Administration sites; (5) ASOS does not satisfy the weather observation needs of many users; (6) ASOS users state that incorrect ASOS observations could risk aviation efficiency and safety, and skew national climate research; (7) in March 1995, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) resumed the commissioning of observers on the basis of expected system and equipment improvements; (8) although NWS has recently begun to recognize user needs that go beyond ASOS specifications, it has not yet determined how it will enhance or supplement ASOS to address user needs; (9) NWS cannot reliably assess whether system enhancements will continue to be cost beneficial without a complete cost estimate; (10) ASOS problems have delayed NWS plans for releasing human weather observers; and (11) although ASOS officials stated that user needs will be met before observers are released, NWS does not have a strategy to ensure that the information needs of all users will be met.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with the recommendation and has prioritized proposed system enhancements. NWS reports that a number of technical improvements are planned and have been coordinated with the ASOS user community. NWS has identified the aviation industry as its first priority for ASOS, but reports that it is also addressing needs of the climate community.

    Recommendation: Given the criticality of accurate and timely weather observations, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to define and prioritize, in conjunction with ASOS users, all system corrections, enhancements, and supplements that must occur to meet valid user needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NWS did not concur with this recommendation, and has no plans to comply.

    Recommendation: Given the criticality of accurate and timely weather observations, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to reestimate ASOS costs in light of planned system corrections, enhancements, and supplements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although NWS partially concurred with this recommendation, it did not take all of the necessary steps to implement it. NWS did not establish either system performance criteria or cost-benefit criteria with all ASOS users. Specifically, NWS established aviation users' performance criteria, but did not establish meteorologists' or climatologists' performance criteria. Additionally, it did not establish cost-benefit criteria with any user group. NWS stated that it is still governed by Public Law 102-567, which requires "no degradation of services." Consequently, NWS will base the release of human observers on meeting aviation industry requirements and not on cost-benefit criteria.

    Recommendation: Given the criticality of accurate and timely weather observations, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to formulate, in conjunction with ASOS users, explicit system performance and cost/benefit criteria governing the release of human observers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NWS partially concurred with this recommendation. However, it did not implement all of the steps necessary to complete it. NWS did not establish cost-benefit criteria or establish system performance criteria with all users.

    Recommendation: Given the criticality of accurate and timely weather observations, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to certify to the Secretary that: (1) the cost/benefit criteria have been satisfied before investing in ASOS corrections, enhancements, and supplements; and (2) ASOS system performance criteria have been satisfied before releasing human observers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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