Ehlers' Subcommittee Examines NOAA Satellite Data Issues

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Publication date: 
13 August 2002

On July 24, the Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee examined the ability of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to handle and utilize satellite data. The hearing focused on the difficulties experienced by NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service in providing data to DOD and the National Weather Service, and whether NOAA will be prepared for the tremendous influx in data when the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System becomes operational later this decade. It is the subcommittee's duty, said Chairman Vern Ehlers (R-MI), "to ensure that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth. But getting our money's worth is not simply contingent on a satellite being successfully launched.... The key factor is using the data."

NOAA itself has reported that it has been unable to achieve timely delivery of 65 percent of satellite data and data products sought by DOD and the National Weather Service. Conrad Lautenbacher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, stated in his testimony that NOAA has experienced a ten-fold increase in data archived and a fifty-fold increase in users over the past decade, while the number of data products produced in support of DOD and the National Weather Service increased from 40 to 500. He admitted that "a backlog of new satellite products...has accumulated" and the reliability of the Data and Information Service's satellite data processing operations "has also degraded." However, he noted that the FY 2003 budget request includes funding for several initiatives to help correct these problems.

The hearing also addressed the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which represents the merging of NOAA and DOD weather and climate monitoring efforts into a single program. A contract will be awarded this year for development and production of NPOESS, with the first launch expected in 2008 or 2009. Witnesses acknowledged that NOAA and its Satellite, Data and Information Service are not yet prepared to receive and archive the enormous increase in data to come from NPOESS. However, GAO's Director of Information Management Issues, Linda Koontz, testified that "the four processing centers and the integrated program office are well aware of these data management challenges and are planning to address them.... Because the NPOESS launch is several years in the future, agencies have time to build up their respective infrastructures and models so that they can handle increased data volumes."

Lautenbacher's statement indicated that some of the funding to modernize data handling, through a program called CLASS [Comprehensive Large Array-data Stewardship System] has been requested for NOAA but not specifically under the NPOESS program. "NOAA has made significant progress in its ability to archive and provide access," his testimony stated, "and will continue to leverage these advancing technologies through effective stewardship of current resources. Management of the increased volume of data can be accomplished only through a rapid expansion in storage capacity, increased communications bandwidth, and automation of the means of data ingest, quality control, and access. The CLASS program will act as the connection in NOAA's effort to meet these challenges and pave the way to accommodate the additional massive data volumes expected over the next several years."

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