Big Technical Difficulties at the National Weather Service This Afternoon

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 22 2014 5:45 PM

Big Technical Difficulties at the National Weather Service This Afternoon

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National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini in May 2013

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service briefly lost the ability to communicate severe weather warnings and radar data throughout its nationwide system.

The outage lasted approximately 32 minutes. A screencap of the NWSchat log—an internal record of official communications—from the office in Albany, N.Y., clearly captured the implications:

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Yes, technically, that tornado warning expired before it was issued. Lucky there were no actual tornadoes during that time … oh wait:

During the outage, radar data wasn’t updated, and warnings weren’t sent out.

The outage comes as the latest in a series of recent technical glitches to affect the NWS. Previous technicalities weren’t quite as serious, such as an unbelievably large flood warning in mid-April (coincidentally, the day before the movie Noah was released), and a website crash in early April (though warning products continued to be issued as normal through more traditional channels).

Today’s glitch affected the entire country in a more fundamental way: There just wasn’t any data getting through.

Immediately, reports came in from across the country, verifying the glitch:

During the outage, the National Weather Service office in Philadelphia took to issuing warnings via Facebook and Twitter instead:

By 4:38 p.m. Eastern, the problem appeared to be solved:

Outages like this can’t continue. The National Weather Service should immediately implement redundancy into their computer systems to ensure the people they serve—us—aren’t kept in the dark when dangerous weather approaches. Until then, the system in place is an embarrassment to the diligent scientists that work there.

Severe weather, including possibly tornadoes, is expected to continue this evening throughout much of the East Coast.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.