Weather Service systems crumbling as extreme weather escalates

As painfully obvious from the recent events in Oklahoma, tornado season is in full gear. Meanwhile, hurricane season is a week away.  Yet budget woes and multiple system failures at the National Weather Service in the past week, not to mention staffing shortages, are raising concerns that its ability to warn the public of hazardous weather could crack at any time.

In the past 5 days alone, a telecommunications outage near Chicago made it difficult for NWS forecasters to issue warnings, a major weather satellite failed, the website for the entire NWS Southern Region went down, and a NWS official in tornado alley declined to launch a weather balloon citing budget concerns.

These problems are symptomatic of insufficient funding and dated infrastructure, advocates for more generous NWS budgets say. What follows is an overview of the problems NWS has encountered, just since Sunday.

Telecommunications outage

Late Monday evening, just hours after the Moore, Okla. tornado carved a deadly, 17-mile path, a Verizon telecommunications outage occurred at a facility outside Chicago, affecting 6 forecast offices according to Chris Vaccaro, a National Weather Service spokesperson.

At the forecast office serving Chicago in Romeoville, Ill., when forecasters attempted to issue a severe thunderstorm and flash flood warning for the Windy City, systems went down. Forecasters were unable to disseminate the warnings according to Eugene Izzi, a forecaster at the office and also a representative of the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO), a labor union.

“We and our neighboring offices lost internet and we were unable to transmit any products, we only received some limited data (our own radar, but no other sites) and we were essentially left crippled,” explained Izzi in a Facebook post.

The Romeoville office contacted its secondary back-up office in Milwaukee and, over the phone, dictated the warning information.

“Thankfully, it was a run of the mill ordinary marginal wind event for our county warning area,” Izzi said. “Think of how close this was to being a catastrophe. If this had happened hours earlier during the Moore tornado, I shudder to think of the results.”

The cause of the outage is unclear, but Vaccaro stressed it was “not related to any failure of NWS equipment.”

Dan Sobien, president of the NWSEO, questioned why there was no back-up.

“If NWS has to rely on Verizon to get its warnings out, then it’s doing something wrong,” Sobien said.

Major weather observing satellite fails

On Wednesday, the weather satellite that keeps an eye on the sky over much of eastern North America and the western Atlantic ceased operating.  The satellite, known as GOES-13, had failed one time earlier last fall and was restored.

As a temporary solution to the current outage, NOAA switched its other primary weather satellite, GOES-15, which focuses on the West Coast and parts of the Pacific, into “full-disc mode” to provide broader coverage and fill the gap left by GOES-13.

But meteorologists warned the quality of the substitute imagery would be compromised due to the larger viewing angle.

“The satellite coverage from GOES-15 results in distorted images of the eastern U.S. and the western Atlantic and would be a significant concern for forecasters and the public at large going into the Atlantic hurricane season,” wrote AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.

NOAA said that a European satellite provides high quality substitute imagery in the gap region and it plans to turn on its backup satellite, GOES-14, today to resume dedicated coverage there.

But if GOES-13 cannot be fixed and GOES-14 encounters technical difficulties, there is no backup (aside from relying on European data) until NOAA’s next generation weather satellite GOES-R is launched in 2015. And that launch has encountered delays.

In February, the Government Accountability Office classified the possible satellite gap among the top 30 challenges facing the Federal Government.

Southern Region websites down

Since Wednesday evening, National Weather Service websites for the entire Southern Region have functioned only intermittently. This has limited public access to forecasts and warnings. The Southern Region covers a huge area from Florida to Oklahoma including areas under a heightened risk of severe weather today in Texas.

Although the website operations have been spotty, the public can (and could) still access forecast and warnings for these areas from NWS’ main portal, weather.gov.

Last fall, during and following Hurricane Sandy, the website for the Eastern Region of the NWS experienced an outage and was out of commission for several days. The NWS post-storm assessment recommended: “NWS needs to develop redundancies in web services prior to the 2013 hurricane season to ensure backup in case of equipment failure.”

We are awaiting word from the National Weather Service on the cause of the current problem and the status.

(Update: The websites came back online late this morning and have remained in working order. The intermittent outages were related to troubleshooting following a software update according to Vaccaro.)

Special weather balloon launch opportunity turned down

Just hours before several tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma on Sunday, the Midland, Texas, an official at the National Weather Service forecast office turned down a voluntary opportunity to launch a midday weather balloon to sample atmospheric conditions, citing budget concerns.

Morning and evening balloon launches are mandatory. Forecast offices may initiate “special” midday balloon launches when severe weather is expected in the region to provide additional data. Several offices in the Plains, including Norman, Okla., released special launches during the Sunday and Monday severe weather outbreaks, although Midland passed on the opportunity.

“Given our budget (cough) situation, I’ll decline,” typed Brian Curran, Science Operations Officer at the Midland NWS office, into the agency’s internal chat system.

Midland was not in an elevated risk zone for severe weather at the time.

Chris Vaccaro, an NWS spokesperson, said the decision not launch the balloon had “no effect” on subsequent severe weather watches and warnings.  He also stressed Curran’s decision was a personal one and “not a direction.”

But Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Organization, said he thought the data would have been a useful input to forecasts and that to decline the request was unusual.

“I’ve never seen [a balloon launch request] shot down like that before,” Sobien said. “Not for budget reasons.”

Broader implications

In addition to these budget and technology systems issues, forecast offices are short-staffed. There is a 10 percent vacancy rate within the NWS, and hiring is frozen as a cost savings measure motivated by the sequester.

Related: Hiring freeze hobbling operations at local Weather Service office

The Department of Commerce had also proposed four days furlough days for NWS forecasters, a move that was challenged by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) Wednesday.

“The severe weather events in Oklahoma this week have further convinced me that we should not take any chance that avoidable furloughs might result in a degradation of weather prediction and forecasting services,” Wolf said in a letter to Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the Department of Commerce.

The NWS Employees Organization has persistently voiced objections about vacancy rates, the furlough plan, hiring freeze, tight forecast office budgets and aging technology infrastructure.

“The NWS is falling apart, it’s not funded correctly,” said Dan Sobien, NWSEO president. “The NWS has been neglected for a decade.”

Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, used the Oklahoma twister’s aftermath to express significant concerns about the various troubles facing the NWS.

“I, and other colleagues, have repeatedly warned that we are risking lives with bad decisions on weather funding, staffing, satellite capacity, etc.,” Shepherd wrote on his Facebook page.

“We need a national response, sound policy/decisions, no posturing on sequester/budgets,” Shepherd said.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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David Streit · May 23, 2013