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GAO: 17-month gap in weather forecasting is 'best-case scenario'

WASHINGTON — A projected 17-month-gap in some weather satellite forecasts later this decade could last even longer if a replacement satellite now being assembled can’t meet its launch date, an official with the Government Accountability Office said ending June 2012.

The satellite, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), is crucial in tracking hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather phenomena. The tracking gives emergency officials time to prepare and react, according to officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The current orbiter, launched last year, is scheduled to retire in 2016. NOAA officials are predicting it will be at least 17 months before its replacement would be operational in 2018.

“In our opinion, this is a best-case scenario,” David Powner, director of GAO’s Information Technology Management Issues, told House lawmakers sitting on two House Science, Space and Technology subcommittees. “If (the current orbiter) lasts less than five years and if the JPSS launch date slips, this gap could be greater.”

So what’s the worst-case scenario? Fifty-three months, according to GAO.
Complicating matters are cost overruns that have forced NOAA to readjust the program and scale back in other areas.

“We have witnessed Herculean efforts … to get problems under control,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. “Frankly, despite these efforts, we have not had much to cheer about with JPSS.”

Officials said there also may be gaps in data provided by other weather satellites operated by the Pentagon and European agencies. GAO is warning that those gaps could affect timely forecasting. “thereby risking lives, property and commerce.”

NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan agreed a number of challenges remain but said “significant progress has been made” to contain costs and meet the launch schedule.

GAO’s warning comes as the number and capability of weather satellites circling the planet “is beginning a rapid decline” and tight budgets have significantly delayed or eliminated missions to replace them, according to a National Research Council analysis released last month.

The number of in-orbit and planned Earth observation missions by NASA and NOAA is projected to drop “precipitously” from 23 this year to six by 2020,based on information provided by both agencies, the report found. As a result, the number of satellites and other instruments monitoring Earth’s activity is expected to decline from a peak of about 110 in 2011 to fewer than 30 by the end of the decade.

When a similar analysis was issued five years ago, eight satellites were expected to be in space by 2012 tracking a variety of conditions, such as global precipitation, ocean topography and carbon emissions. Only three are now in orbit.

Of the remaining five, two failed, one was canceled and two others are not expected to launch until at least next year.

The pipeline looks emptier over the next decade.

Of the 18 missions recommended in the 2007 report through 2020, only two are close enough to completion to register launch dates.

Contact Ledyard King at