GAO Report: White House Leaves Gaps in Weather Monitoring

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WASHINGTON — A new report criticizes the White House for failing to put in place an interagency strategy for environmental satellite observations and warns that potentially lengthy gaps in certain climate and space weather monitoring capabilities could begin as soon as 2015 as a result.

The crux of the problem, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released May 28, is that the White House has not moved swiftly enough to coordinate plans for completely restoring several instruments and instrument capabilities dropped during the 2006 overhaul of two key satellite systems — the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series.

While some of the capabilities have been added back, others have not. In its report, “Environmental Satellites: Strategy Needed to Sustain Critical Climate and Space Weather Measurements,” the GAO zeroes in on three instruments in particular: the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor, which was supposed to fly on NPOESS to continue measurements that will commence with the launch of NASA’s Glory satellite this year; the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite, a new capability that was to have debuted on GOES-R; and the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, which was added back to NPOESS in 2008 but faces an uncertain future once again.

As the GAO was nearing completion of its review, the White House announced in February it would end the NPOESS program and revert to separate satellite systems for military and civil weather needs. The planned civil constellation, the Joint Polar Satellite System, will fly the major NPOESS sensors, including several climate capabilities added back since 2006. The United States, however, has no firm plans for flying the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor or the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor beyond Glory’s anticipated five-year life span.

“While individual agencies have taken steps to restore selected capabilities in the near term, gaps in coverage ranging from 1 to 11 years are expected beginning as soon as 2015,” the report states.

The GAO wants the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to devise and implement a long-term interagency strategy to prevent the looming coverage gaps from growing worse.

“Without a strategy for continuing environmental measurements over the coming decades and a mean for implementing it, agencies will continue to independently pursue their immediate priorities on an ad hoc basis, the economic benefits of a coordinated approach to investments in earth observation may be lost, and our nation’s ability to understand climate change may be limited,” the GAO wrote.

The report, requested by the House Science and Technology oversight and investigations and energy and environment subcommittees, recommends the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy set a firm deadline to complete and release three key studies on environmental observations that could form the basis of a long-term strategy: the U.S. Group on Earth Observation’s Strategic Assessment Report, which includes a study of near-term priorities on Earth observations, and two reports by the National Space Weather Program on addressing the loss of the Advanced Composition Explorer capabilities for solar-wind observations and the space weather instruments removed from the NPOESS program.

Responding to a draft of the report, a White House Office of Science and Technology Policy official neither agreed nor disagreed with the GAO’s recommendations and said that the Strategic Assessment Report, currently undergoing revisions, is meant as a first step in developing a long-term strategy.

Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee, said the GAO findings underscore the need for a clear blueprint for long-term environmental satellite monitoring capabilities.

“We’ve been engaged in an intense debate over climate change and how it affects the world we live in,” Baird said in a May 28 statement. “If we have the most complete data to track environmental trends, we can better understand climate impacts. Unfortunately, GAO says the important aspects of the observation plans are caught up in red-tape, and we risk losing vital climate information until it’s cleared.”