The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Weather Service faces Internet bandwidth shortage, proposes limiting key data

Agency floats a solution to problems that could hobble private companies and affect popular weather apps.

Category 5 Hurricane Michael at landfall in Florida in 2018. (UW-Madison)

For the past decade, the National Weather Service has been plagued by failures in disseminating critical forecast and warning information that is aimed at protecting lives and saving property. In some cases, its websites have gone down during severe weather events, unable to handle the demand.

Other agency systems, including information and data streams that deliver vital weather modeling data to broadcast meteorologists and commercial users, have also suffered periodic outages.

‘This is not rocket science.’ Years after a fix was promised, National Weather Service website still unreliable.

Now, during a year that featured record California wildfires and the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, the Weather Service says it has an Internet bandwidth problem and is seeking to throttle back the amount of data its most demanding users can access. The Weather Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced the proposed limits in a memo dated Nov. 18.

“As demand for data continues to grow across NCEP websites, we are proposing to put new limits into place to safeguard our web services,” the memo stated, referring to the Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction. “The frequency of how often these websites are accessed by the public has created limitations and infrastructure constraints.”

The Weather Service’s proposed remedy is to limit users to 60 connections per minute on a large number of its websites that provide weather observations, forecasts, warnings, computer model data, air quality information, aviation weather support and ocean conditions.

“[W]e want to exceed the needs of our stakeholders and partners,” said Susan Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the Weather Service. “[H]owever, we are challenged with bandwidth limitations as models and observations improve and data size increases.”

“User requests for data continue to increase and without imposing some type of mitigation,” she continued, “the bandwidth situation will worsen, potentially impacting a larger number of users.”

According to companies that draw large amounts of this data, the proposed limit will substantially harm the services they provide to customers. The possible negative effect on forecasts has also raised concerns among congressional lawmakers.

Jonathan Porter, a vice president and general manager at the private forecasting firm AccuWeather, warns that the agency’s proposed solution would harm the timeliness and accuracy of forecasts and severe weather warnings. He said the collection, processing and distribution of weather information are the agency’s “most important services.”

“Limiting the amount of data that can be accessed conflicts with this vital mission and will negatively, and possibly catastrophically, impact individuals and businesses that rely on this data to make critical, lifesaving decisions when seconds count and lives are on the line,” Porter wrote in a statement.

Ordinary weather consumers who get their information primarily from weather apps on their phones also would be affected by this proposal because the forecasts and weather alerts they receive are based on computer modeling output and radar data, much of which comes from the Weather Service.

“For private industry, it’s a huge impact, especially for users that are adjusting a lot of National Weather Service models,” said Matt Rydzik, applications developer for Commodity Weather Group, which serves clients in the agricultural and energy market.

The Commodity Weather Group operates the website, a hub of computer model and forecast data that customers rely on to make what are in many cases financially costly decisions. Weather hobbyists also pay to access the site’s rapidly updated modeling data for predicting weather.

The StormVista site draws in data from more than a dozen models, including the American GFS and European model, and Rydzik said simply pulling data from one of them would potentially exceed the Weather Service’s data limit. He called the impact of the Weather Service proposal potentially “devastating” because it would force his company to reduce services.

“I’m assuming it would be impossible to bring in half the model runs,” Rydzik said. “It’s like a store rationing a family to one loaf of bread per week.”

Levi Cowan, who runs the popular weather model website, said the data limit would also result in delays in the delivery of certain model information by up to “a few hours.” In a worst-case scenario, he said, this would compromise the timely delivery of vital data to consumers during extreme weather events.

Rydzik said that the Commodity Weather Group is exploring how it might work around these issues but that it may be costly.

“It is not clear why the NWS is considering these harmful bandwidth restrictions given the massive scalability of content delivery network (CDN) technology, cloud infrastructure and other technology solutions that are currently available,” AccuWeather’s Porter said. “It’s truly unfortunate that the NWS apparently does not recognize that this proposal is 100 percent contrary to its mission and its obligation to the American people.”

Porter said the amount of data available to predict the weather continues to grow, making it more crucial than ever that the Weather Service ensure the timely flow of information.

The Weather Service’s Buchanan said Internet bandwidth demand is “very dynamic” and hard to plan for.

“[P]roblems are most prevalent during peak model data delivery times and can be cyclical such as during a landfalling hurricane or a potent winter storm,” she said. “We plan for expanded user data inquiries as best as we can, but user interest in NWS information is increasing faster than our infrastructure can sustain at times.”

Buchanan added that the Weather Service is “in the planning process of moving certain components of its dissemination system to the cloud” through NOAA’s Big Data Program.

“It is pretty obvious that the National Weather Service has failed to keep up with IT infrastructure needs,” said Troy Kimmel, a meteorologist and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who closely monitors Weather Service website performance. “They don’t need to be shutting people off. They need to increase the bandwidth.”

Many private weather companies develop their own computer models for forecasting but still use some Weather Service data. Boston-based ClimaCell, which specializes in weather intelligence, said that it also would be affected by this proposal, but that the bigger picture concerns how NOAA would fall behind its competitors in Europe and elsewhere. Rei Goffer, a co-founder and chief strategy officer of the company, said the move could hurt the Weather Service’s competitiveness if it is not limited to the short term.

“Hopefully, NOAA is using this temporary limitation to set up a state-of-the-art delivery platform,” Goffer said in a statement. “Yet, if this will be longer than a short limitation, NOAA will very quickly lose ground to competing agencies (namely UK Met and ECMWF) as the go-to source for governmental weather data.”

Meet the ClimaCell weather app. Alerting you when it’s about to rain, down to the minute, all around the world.

The Weather Company, which is owned by IBM and is one of the largest providers of weather information, declined to comment on the proposal but said it was submitting feedback directly to NOAA and Congress.

Only $1.5 million to fix?

The Weather Service held a public forum Tuesday to discuss the proposal and answer questions. When asked about the investment in computing infrastructure that would be required for these limits to not be necessary, agency officials said a one-time cost of about $1.5 million could avert rate limits. The NOAA budget for fiscal 2020 was $5.4 billion.

Buchanan, however, stated the actual cost to address the issue would be higher because the $1.5 million “would comprise just one component of what has to be a multifaceted solution.”

The officials at the forum also said that senior management at the Weather Service was aware of the relatively small cost of addressing the issue but that the agency faced “competing priorities.”

Buchanan said data dissemination is a priority for Weather Service leadership but that it is “continuously weighed” against others.

When officials at the forum were asked if Congress was aware of the agency’s data dissemination challenges, they said that they did not know.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees NOAA, said a request to upgrade the Weather Service’s computing infrastructure would probably find bipartisan support.

“From wildfires in Washington to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, seconds count to save lives and property, and weather data plays a critical role in getting our emergency managers and first responders the information they need,” she said. “The United States should be striving to be the best in the world when it comes to weather data and forecasts, and with everything we’ve seen this year, a request to upgrade servers at the National Weather Service would find support on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Telling people to limit their use of this critical data is not an acceptable answer.”

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee “is aware of the proposal” and monitoring its potential impacts, according to the committee’s staff. “We are looking into how these proposed restrictions could impact NOAA’s ability to ensure free and open public access to the Agency’s data and models,” a spokesperson said.

The Weather Service is accepting public comments on its proposal through Dec. 18. Buchanan said that the agency believes 75 percent of its users will not be affected by the proposed change.

“If we learn differently, we will change our approach,” Buchanan said. “We are committed to work with users to mitigate to the maximum extent feasible the impacts of any necessary changes.”

If changes are ultimately made, officials at the forum assured users they would be rolled out slowly with advanced notification, probably starting in about three months.