House Subcommittees Discuss Weather Forecasting Gaps

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Publication date: 
11 October 2013

A September 19 hearing in the Subcommittees on Oversight and Environment of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee provided Members with an update on potential national weather satellite coverage gaps.  A February 2013 report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified a high probability in gaps in satellite coverage and addressed mitigation of those gaps in weather satellite data.   During the hearing, Members discussed the Administration’s priorities in research and funding for weather and climate-monitoring satellites.  The Joint Polar Satellite System and the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System have been the topic of previous hearings and Members were interested in the reliability of these satellite systems in light of recent extreme weather events. 

“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,” stated the GAO report. 

“Data from these satellites not only help one decide whether or not to leave the house with an umbrella, they allow meteorologists to more accurately predict extreme weather, military planners to more intelligently deploy troops around the world, and emergency managers to better respond to wildfires and other natural disasters,” noted Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) as he emphasized the high cost and deadline problems of these programs.  “If money is so tight and our weather satellite programs so vulnerable, then perhaps the Administration needs to evaluate its priorities and determine which is more important – near-term weather monitoring, which can save lives and property today, or beefing up NASA’s climate portfolio in an effort to guess what the weather might be decades from now,” he suggested.   He cautioned against relying on China for satellite coverage due to “persistent and malicious cyber-attacks against our nation” and expressed frustration at the potential for data gaps. He highlighted problems due to sequestration noting that the cut of $54 million at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would cause further delays in the launch of the Geostationary Observational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R).

Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Oversight Dan Maffei (D-NY) agreed that Both the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational  Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) are essential acquisition programs intended to put replacements on-orbit for the current generation of operating satellites. Unfortunately, both these acquisitions have been troubled.”  While there is bi-partisan agreement on the need for satellites that are ready to launch to avoid or limit gaps in coverage, he disagreed with the suggestion that the problems with JPSS and GOES-R are linked to climate science funding.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart (R-UT) echoed the sentiment of other Members as he stated the “current trajectory is unacceptable.”  He advocated for the implementation of contingency plans as was suggested by the GAO to mitigate the “potential breakdowns in our forecasting ability.”  He suggested that we need to look at American, and potentially commercial, sources for these critical data. It should be alarming that we may be in a position of having to rely on international partners for weather data to protect lives and property, an outcome that could raise much greater quality and access concerns than some of the potential commercial partners that have so far been rebuffed by NOAA.”

Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Environment Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) was interested to hear from witnesses how to “minimize the scope and length of the expected gap in the polar program, how we can avoid a gap in the geostationary program.”  She also wanted to learnhow developed the federal agency plans were to address the gaps in coverage.

Three witnesses testified.  David Prowner Director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office summarized two reports released in September 2013 about the JPSS program status, plans, schedule, and gap mitigation strategies and the contingency planning, status and management of the GOES-R program.  The reports found that the JPSS data on schedule milestones and estimated savings, and GOES-R data on schedules and cost reserves were sufficiently reliable for our purposes. All of our work for the reports was performed in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.” 

Prowner also provided recommendations to mitigate program risk including establishing a program master schedule for JPSS, addressing issues in the JPSS ground system and spacecraft schedules, updating the schedule for JPSS-1, and potentially establishing “a comprehensive contingency plan for potential satellite data gaps in the polar orbit that is consistent with contingency planning best practices identified in our report.”  Regarding GOES-R, the GAO recommends that NOAA address weaknesses in the schedules of core ground systems and spacecraft and “revise the satellite and ground system contingency plans.” 

Mary Kicza, Assistant Administrator of the Satellite, Data, and Information Services at NOAA noted the importance of “stability of funding in FY 2014 and beyond” which is “critical for meeting developmental milestones that will allow these programs to meet their launch date.”  She stressed that “NOAA shares the concern of the Congress that gaps in coverage would significantly impact our ability to provide the weather coverage that the American public and commerce rely on.”  She provided insight into how GOES-R and JPSS would contribute to NOAA’s goal to extend tornado warning time to an hour.  Also addressed in her testimony was NOAA’s reliance on the aerospace industry for ground systems and data processing.   On the topic of international partnerships, she provided the committee with an update on NOAA’s agreement with its European operational satellite counterpart, work with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and partnerships with the Canadian and French space agencies. 

Marcus Watkins, Director of NASA’s Joint Agency Satellite Division assured Members that JPSS program management is going well and that a baseline program for JPSS is on schedule and within budget.  He stated that the GOES-R Series Program “continues to make progress towards launching GOES-R” and that the next major milestone of this program is the Systems Integration Review.  He reiterated Kicza as he stressed that “NASA and NOAA are committed to the JPSS and GOES-R programs, and ensuring the success of these programs is essential to both agencies and the Nation.  The NASA and NOAA teams have established strong working relationships and are striving to ensure that weather and environmental requirements are met on the most efficient and predictable schedule without reducing system capabilities or further increasing risk.”

Members from both sides focused their questions on cost issues and schedule issues.  While subcommittee Members have diminished expectations about the satellite programs due to tight budgets and launch schedule delays, there seems to be a shared goal of determining a successful path forward for these programs.

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