Forecasts to improve after NOAA closes weather satellite data gaps

New satellites allows government to remove program from high-risk list

Polar satellites cross the equator 14 times daily capturing data which serves essential models for 3- to 7-day forecasts.
Polar satellites cross the equator 14 times daily capturing data which serves essential models for 3- to 7-day forecasts. (NOAA)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla – Gaps in satellite data and coverage had kept NOAA’s satellite program on a high-risk list due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

Routine weather forecasts become less reliable without continuous satellite coverage and data gaps result in less accurate and timely warnings of extreme events, such as hurricanes and floods.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has now fixed the data gaps in its satellite program, according to the latest report, the U.S Government Accountability Office.

"The U.S. no longer faces the grim prospect of satellite data gaps in the polar orbit, which looked like a real possibility in 2011 because of projected cost overruns and launch uncertainty," according to Steven Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services.

NOAA successfully launched a polar-orbiting satellite called NOAA-20 in November 2017 which feeds data into forecast models. Polar satellites make up part of the Earth-observing system along with fixed location geostationary satellites that are positioned 23,500 above. 

Geostationary satellites, unfortunately, are too far away to provide great detail in contrast to the low earth polar satellites which orbiting 500 miles high.

NOAA and DOD have been on the list since 2013 for failing to have a contingency plan for gap-filling satellites. NOAA and DOD have made significant progress in addressing this issue in recent years.

NOAA made improvements to its geostationary weather satellite program by improving its gap mitigation plans, ensuring it had the capacity to integrate and test the next geostationary satellite, and launching the GOES satellite in November 2016. Moving forward, both NOAA and DOD plan to develop and launch the next satellites in their respective weather satellite programs.

The Department of Defense has taken actions to address gaps in weather data with satellite launches in 2021 (potentially), 2022 and 2024. NOAA plans to launch its next geostationary weather satellite in 2021 and to launch its next polar weather satellite in 2022. 

Certain risks are considered to make the GAO biennial list, such which include wasteful spending and whether there is a risk to public health or safety along with national security and defense, economic growth, or privacy or citizens’ rights.

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