The National Weather Service’s Digital Infrastructure Is Setting Us Up for Disaster

The aftermath of a tornado south of Birmingham, Alabama on March 25, when forecasters were urging that nobody but emergency officials and media in the affected region access the NWS Chat Service, lest it crash.
The aftermath of a tornado south of Birmingham, Alabama on March 25, when forecasters were urging that nobody but emergency officials and media in the affected region access the NWS Chat Service, lest it crash.
Photo: Butch Dill (AP)

The National Weather Service experienced multiple outages of major systems on Tuesday, taking its public-facing meteorological forecasts system (as well as storm warnings) offline and hindering access for its own weather experts.

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The NWS serves a critical public safety function, as it and its regional offices are the nation’s most authoritative sources on weather and other climate emergencies like the tornadoes and floods that have done damage across the South this spring. This mission couldn’t be more important in an era where a changing climate threatens to wreak havoc in ways that can’t be adequately anticipated or prepared for without the federal support NWS provides. It’s yet another warning that one of the nation’s most important pieces of infrastructure is being neglected.

The NWS central operations center issued a statement at around 5:11 a.m. ET saying service disruptions included downed websites, a malfunctioning agency chat service, and forecast office network outages “impacting product dissemination and data reception.” After the National Weather Prediction Service announced in the early hours of Tuesday morning it wasn’t able to back up rainfall forecasts, WHNT reported, the Storm Prediction Center attempted to take up the slack but was unable to do so due to its own technical problems.

This isn’t the only recent failure. The NWS Chat service, which connects the agency to meteorologists, the media, and emergency personnel across the country, has long been considered unstable—to the point where Birmingham’s regional NWS office temporarily switched to messaging service Slack earlier this month, according to the Washington Post. The NWS instructed the Birmingham office to switch back to NWS Chat, but agency forecasts begged the public during a period of high tornado risk in Alabama last Thursday not to access the system unless they were an official or member of the media, as it might crash.

NWS Chat also went down on Saturday amid tornadoes in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee and as Nashville was hit with flash floods, the Post reported. Other recent problems flagged by the Post include a malfunctioning radar website and floods at a Silver Spring, Maryland data center that have kneecapped buoy observations. Last year, the agency also raised the prospect of throttling data, which could have an averse impact on services that rely on it such as weather apps.

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Kathie Dello, the state climatologist of North Carolina and director of its State Climate Office, noted in an email that “just a few days ago, the NWS Norman Warning Coordination Meteorologist asked people to stay off their internal (though open to partners) chat platform, because it couldn’t handle the extra traffic. We owe our nation’s frontline workers, who warn us about our weather and climate disasters 24/7/365, a digital infrastructure that’s sufficient enough to do their job.”

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The NWS has repeatedly promised to fix faltering digital infrastructure for years—although it apparently hasn’t. Four years of negligence under former President Donald Trump probably hasn’t helped, though the issues predate his arrival in the Oval Office by years.

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Its persistent failure to fix its networks has become a broad subject of concern among meteorologists and climate experts worried about both the potential harm if outages strike during an emergency, and the general lack of preparation even as extreme weather strikes more often in patterns linked with climate change. Broadcast meteorologist and University of Texas at Austin lecturer Troy Kimmel told the Post in 2019, “This is not rocket science... This has nothing to do with meteorology. It has to do with computers, how to soak up data and how to store it.”

“It’s hard to think of planning for the next few decades, when our country’s infrastructure (physical and digital) isn’t even close to present day,” Dello said. “Arming communities with reliable weather forecasting and information is climate resilience, and with increasing incidence of extreme weather events, the NWS got lucky today is fairly quiet weather-wise.”

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"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post

DISCUSSION

spikespeigel
spikespeigel

Uh, this is terrifying. Why is no one else addressing this?