Weather Forecasting—Outlook Unclear

WeatherSandy forecasts can warn people before major storms strike—allowing time to protect homes, businesses, and lives. We have previously discussed the importance of the satellites the United States uses for its forecasts, and wanted to update our readers on recent developments in this area.

Which Satellites Are Involved?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has 2 main satellite programs for weather forecasting:

Both JPSS and GOES-R must have a full set of satellites and backups to ensure timely weather reporting. For instance, in 2012, just 4 days before the formation of Superstorm Sandy, the GOES-R satellite with primary responsibility for monitoring the U.S. east coast was offline. If not for a backup already in place, a gap in receiving some satellite data could have occurred.

Pending Gaps in Weather Forecasting

Gaps in receiving satellite data could occur when the current JPSS and GOES-R satellites need to be replaced.

We found a likely gap in JPSS satellites that could last 1-3 years, as shown below. A gap in 1 of 3 JPSS satellite orbits could occur between when the current polar satellite is expected to go offline, and the next one is operational. In addition, the risk of space debris damaging a currently operating satellite contributes to the likelihood of a gap.

GAO-15-47Excerpted from GAO-15-47

We also found that GOES-R could experience gaps in coverage if its satellites currently in orbit don’t last as long as anticipated, or if replacement satellites are delayed. Both of the current GOES-R satellites could go offline in the next 2 years, and the current program to replace them has experienced delays in both launch and in achieving major milestones.

Due to the likelihood of gaps in weather satellite data, we added this issue to our High Risk List in 2013. This podcast further explains the current risks of a gap in weather satellite data:

While NOAA has made several improvements to these programs’ gap mitigation and contingency plan procedures, with the risks of a gap in the near future, the agency needs fully comprehensive backup plans. We recently recommended that NOAA add more information to these plans in order to prepare for a potential gap.

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