To Observe and Protect: Members Criticize NOAA’s Weather Observing System Prioritization, Decision-Making Process
Washington D.C. – The Subcommittee on Energy and Environment today held a hearing to examine how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) develops, evaluates, and executes plans to deliver the best and most cost-effective data necessary to meet requirements for severe weather prediction and other observational needs.
The core mission of NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) is to protect life and property, and its success is dependent on obtaining data necessary to generate accurate forecasts. This data is obtained through a mix of observing systems located in space, the atmosphere, on land, and in the ocean.
Up from 27 percent in 2009, the 2013 budget request for NOAA’s satellite office now comprises over 40 percent of the total request. Most of this funding would go toward two satellite programs: the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R). Witnesses today questioned the growing percentage of NOAA’s budget dedicated to satellites that come at the expense of other less expensive, yet important, monitoring systems.
“NOAA’s ‘tough choices’ have resulted in placing nearly all of its weather-forecasting eggs in a single basket: satellite systems fraught with a long history of major problems,” noted Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD). “These decisions are causing trade-offs with other valuable weather measurement systems.”
Harris said, “Rather than relying on the whims of an individual Administration or the opinions of subject matter experts divorced from fiscal realities or program managers wedded to certain systems, NOAA needs to undertake comprehensive, objective, and quantitative evaluations of observing systems that incorporate cost.”
Such evaluations are known as Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs). In a March 2012 article in Physics Today, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco stated that OSSEs were a “powerful tool” to “inform our strategies for investing in observation networks.”
Testifying today, Mr. Eric Webster, Vice President and Director of Weather Systems at ITT Exelis, recommended that NOAA increase its use of OSSEs along with other unbiased means of evaluating weather monitoring capabilities. “These tools, with the proper oversight and funding can help to prioritize unmet needs, and identify solutions that are more cost-effective and perhaps technically superior to existing observations systems,” Webster said. “NOAA and NASA must find ways to reduce the costs of the current GOES-R and JPSS programs as they are likely unsustainable.” Webster continued, “These costs are having a tremendous effect on the rest of NOAA’s mission today and nearly assuring no new observing systems, especially from space, will be able to be acquired.”
To date, however, NOAA has not conducted OSSEs to guide decision-making related to potential means to lessen the impact of the likely polar weather data gap.
Citing the value of a national, ground-based mesonet network, Dr. Berrien Moore III, Director of the National Weather Center and Dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographical Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, stated that “America will only become a ‘Weather-Ready Nation’ if we increase the number of observations used to make meteorological forecasting more accurate and precise, and then work with the public and local decision makers to act on those improved forecasts.”
Dr. David Crain, President and CEO of GeoMetWatch, further testified that America’s operational weather satellites and infrastructure are aging, without sufficient plans to replace them. Dr. Crain said, “Our current capability to adequately monitor and predict severe weather over the United States is threatened to the point that we must rely on satellite missions flown by Europe and China to meet our basic weather observation requirements.”
The following witnesses testified today before the Subcommittee:
Ms. Mary Kicza, Assistant Administrator, National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Dr. Alexander MacDonald, Deputy Assistant Administrator for Research Laboratories and Cooperative Institutes, Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, NOAA
Mr. John Murphy, Chief, Programs and Plans Division, National Weather Service, NOAA
Mr. Eric Webster, Vice President and Director, Weather Systems, ITT Exelis
Dr. David Crain, Chief Executive Officer, GeoMetWatch
Mr. Bruce Lev, Vice Chairman, AirDat LLC
Dr. Berrien Moore, Dean, University of Oklahoma College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, and Director, National Weather Center