National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

Weather Service Modernization and NOAA Corps Issues

T-AIMD/GGD-97-63: Published: Mar 13, 1997. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed: (1) preliminary findings of its ongoing audit work relating to the National Weather Service's (NWS) Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS), the linchpin of NWS' $4.5-billion modernization program; (2) its report concerning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's (NOAA) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system, which plays a vital role in weather forecasting; and (3) findings from its report on the NOAA Commissioned Corps, relating to issues involving Corps officers' receiving military pay, allowances, and benefits.

GAO noted that: (1) the NWS modernization has entailed acquiring and putting into operation new and vastly more capable weather observing systems; (2) through AWIPS, the NWS expects to tap a reservoir of data from its new observing systems, data that its current, aging processing and communications system cannot handle; (3) after early successes in demonstrating the technical feasibility of system functions, design problems and disagreements between NOAA and the development contractor stymied progress; (4) on the recommendation of an independent review team, some development responsibility was brought in-house, to NWS/NOAA labs, in 1995; (5) the AWIPS strategy was changed again in 1996, when even more development responsibility, for AWIPS data acceptance, processing, and display capabilities, was brought in-house, primarily to NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL); (6) at that time, NWS decided to use FSL's prototype system, called Weather Forecast Office-Advanced which was being developed parallel to AWIPS as a risk-reduction tactic; (7) with these changes, NWS expects AWIPS to be fully deployed in 1999 at a total cost of $550 million; (8) GOES satellites in the current series will begin to reach the end of their useful lives about 2002; (9) NOAA is now in the process of planning the procurement of replacements for these satellites, which need to be procured quickly to prevent a gap in coverage as the current series runs out; (10) GAO found NOAA's near term approach reasonable, competitively procuring two to four GOES spacecraft that will carry the same meteorological instruments as the current series, with modest improvements; (11) a new GOES design might better meet the evolving needs of forecasters and improve performance as well as reduce costs; (12) GAO's greatest concern in this area is with NOAA's delay in conducting an analysis of the technological options and developing specific plans for the follow-up series; (13) generally, the NOAA Corps does not meet criteria for receiving military compensation; (14) if a decision to convert Corps officers to civilian status were made, a transition plan would need to consider, along with the time period to accomplish the change: (a) retirement benefits/credits to be allotted to officers who are converted to civilian capacity; (b) resources needed for potential recruitment, training, and retention of civilian employees who might replace Corps members choosing to leave federal service; (c) what additional resources, if any, NOAA would require to administer the civilian workforce; and (d) other specific operational elements.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is being tracked under another report.

    Matter: Given that options may exist for NOAA to develop a significantly improved follow-up GOES system, Congress may wish to closely examine the costs and benefits of different approaches for the timing, funding, and scope of the follow-up program.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is being tracked under another report.

    Matter: Congress may also wish to examine NASA's potential role in working with NOAA to support the needs of geostationary weather satellites within NASA's advanced spacecraft technology programs.


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