Sept. 10 was the peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic. If you checked the forecast on Sept. 11, you probably found parts of the National Weather Service’s website down. Then, on Tuesday, the website suffered another outage — the latest of many dating back years.
Users trying to access National Weather Service “point and click” forecasts, discussions, watch and warning information, interactive maps and a slew of other resources encountered “page not found” notices. Some were accompanied by a string of numbers that had nothing to do with the weather. If you had an urgent need for critical weather information, you were out of luck.
The National Weather Service released a statement, saying it was “aware of recent intermittent slowness and temporary outages of some web services.” It also tweeted an update.
Lauren Gaches, a spokeswoman for the Weather Service, explained the cause of the problems in a statement, noting investments were being made to prevent them in the future: “Hardware and software upgrades and security patch installation have contributed to these issues, but these and other infrastructure changes will improve and protect our systems for the future. Our IT team works aggressively around the clock to troubleshoot and fix issues as they develop.”
But the Weather Service’s information technology infrastructure cracked again on Wednesday. This time, “major supercomputer issues” required an “emergency switch” between computers in Virginia and Orlando, delaying the output of key weather models. The “American” Global Forecast System model lagged an hour behind in its rollout, while a special hurricane model also was 60 minutes late.
The technical issue also delayed by several hours several higher-resolution model runs, including those particularly helpful in forecasting the ongoing flooding in Texas.
On Thursday, a different problem emerged: The Weather Service’s radar website stopped receiving data. A statement was released at 2:23 p.m. stating that the agency was “actively troubleshooting an apparent hardware failure in Silver Spring.”
Meteorologists across various sectors have taken to social media to voice their frustrations with the recent Web outages.
“What the NWS provides is an invaluable resource,” wrote Andrew Kozak, a meteorologist at Spectrum News 1 Ohio. “The outages are concerning, especially when we head into severe weather.”
“When I can’t get a hold of text products at NWS, I just contend there’s a problem,” said Troy Kimmel, a broadcast meteorologist and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is not rocket science. … This is computers. We’ve got to find an answer to this.”
Problems with the stability and reliability of the Weather Service’s information dissemination infrastructure date back years.
In 2013, a communications outage left a Weather Service forecast office “crippled” as meteorologists tried to issue warnings about severe weather. In 2016, a nationwide problem prevented any data from flowing in to the agency — save from four weather stations nationwide; the “major network issue” also hampered efforts to disseminate severe thunderstorm warnings, a failure at odds with the Weather Service’s mission to “protect life and property.”
Three years later, the National Hurricane Center blacked out for thousands of Americans as Category 5 Hurricane Matthew was bearing down on Florida. And for two hours in February 2017, all Weather Service products ceased transmissions over the Internet, because of what was then described as a “catastrophic” outage. In the fall of 2016, Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini gave an assurance that the agency was making a “lot of progress” and at the time was “about a year away” from 99.9 percent reliability.
Three years later, little has changed. “I’d say [the computer infrastructure is] in worse shape today than they’ve ever been in the past,” Kimmel said. “I can’t rely on National Weather Service updates to give me text that is timely. Sometimes it times out. ... That’s an issue.”
Kimmel pointed to sites such as AccuWeather and Weather.com, both popular vendors of Weather Service-driven weather data. “Every day, think of all the banks, the airlines, the companies that have so much information they’re passing through,” Kimmel said. “Short of a problem every once in a while, there are few issues. The National Weather Service should be able to do this.”
Despite the website problems, Ryan Maue, a meteorologist operating the website weathermodels.com, praised the job the Weather Service has done in keeping its forecast models operating. “They’re very responsive to the needs of the community,” Maue said
But Maue agreed that the Weather Service’s website is “1990s,” “very dated” and in need of a makeover. “The investments in the weather models vs. the website are dramatically different,” Maue said.
Kimmel stressed the respect he has for Weather Service meteorologists and lamented that technical problems are getting in the way of the dedicated work they do. “This has nothing to do with meteorology,” Kimmel said. “It has to do with computers, how to soak up data and how to store it.”
In the meantime, the most recent week-long partial outage seems to have resolved itself, but not before fraying nerves and prompting calls for renewed efforts to deal with the root of the problem.
“Like many things in this country, the infrastructure of National Weather Service is getting old and is in need of massive investment,” said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service’s labor union. “Let’s not forget that there are numerous vacancies in the NWS that may be contributing to this.”