Sept. 10 was the peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic. If you checked the forecast on Sept. 11, you likely found parts of the National Weather Service's website down. Then, on Tuesday, Sept. 17, the website suffered another outage - the latest in a long series dating back years.
Users attempting 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."
Lauren Gauches, spokeswoman for the Weather Service, explained the cause of the problems in a statement, noting that 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 trouble-shoot and fix issues as they develop."
But then the National Weather Service's information technology infrastructure cracked again Wednesday. This time "major supercomputer issues" required an "emergency switch" between computers in Virginia and Orlando, Florida, 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 was also 60 minutes late.
The technical issue also delayed several higher-resolution model runs, including those particularly helpful in forecasting the ongoing flooding in Texas, by several hours.
On Thursday, a different problem emerged: the National Weather Service's radar website stopped receiving data. A statement was released at 2:23 p.m. stating the agency was "actively troubleshooting an apparent hardware failure in Silver Spring," Maryland.
Meteorologists across various sectors have voiced their frustrations on social media.
"What the NWS provides is an invaluable resource," wrote Andrew Kozak, a meteorologist at Spectrum News 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."
Issues with the stability and reliability of the National Weather Service's information dissemination infrastructure dates back years.
In 2013, a communications outage left a National Weather Service forecast office "crippled" as it attempted to issue warnings for severe weather. In 2016, a nationwide issue prevented data from flowing into the agency, save for four weather stations nationwide; the "major network issue" also hampered efforts to disseminate severe thunderstorm warnings, at odds with the National Weather Service's mission to "protect life and property."
Three months 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 National Weather Service products ceased transmission over the Internet thanks to a what was then described as a "catastrophic" outage. In the fall of 2016, National Weather Service director Louis Uccellini had promised 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," said Kimmel. "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 like AccuWeather and Weather.com, both popular vendors of National 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," said Kimmel. "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 issues, Ryan Maue, a meteorologist operating the website weathermodels.com, commended 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 said the Weather Service's website is "1990s," "very dated" and in need of a makeover. "The investments in the weather models versus the website are dramatically different," Maue said.
Kimmel stressed the respect he has for Weather Service meteorologists, and laments that technical problems are getting in the way of the dedicated work they do. "This has nothing to do with meteorology. 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 frying nerves and prompting calls for renewed efforts to confront 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."
This article was written by Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow, reporters for The Washington Post.