One Malfunctioning App Took Down the National Weather Service’s Forecasting Website

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 25 2014 9:28 PM

An Open Letter to the Director of the National Weather Service

71136085WM006_Senate_Approp
Louis Uccellini in 2006

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Dear Dr. Louis Uccellini:

Hey, it’s me, Eric. Just a quick check in, as it seems the National Weather Service website is down right now (again) for a lot of folks around the country.

Advertisement

Before we get started, let me just say I’m a big fan of your work. Your book on snowstorms was pretty much the best thing ever, and I think you’ve done an excellent job over the last year or so as the leader of the National Weather Service, especially when it comes to upgrading American weather models after Superstorm Sandy.

Which is why it bothers me that major glitches like this keep happening. Pretty soon, your IT people may want to get in touch with the Healthcare.gov people for help. Today, a single Android app that kept pinging your servers kept lots of people from being able to access the main NWS website. It never went down for me, but it seems like I was one of the lucky ones:

As you know, this is a pretty big deal, since your supercomputers power pretty much everyone’s forecasts—from the Weather Channel to my local TV station.

Your spokesman Chris Vaccaro emailed me with this status update a little bit ago:

Hi Eric-
An outside app that relies on our data has a programming error that is causing it to request data from us too frequently. We are experiencing occasional outages and are actively working with the developer to resolve their programming errors.
-Chris

Now, I’m no tech expert, but if this was just an accident, I’d hate to see what would happen if someone deliberately tried to shut you guys down, say, during the middle of a tornado outbreak or a major hurricane strike on the East Coast. To be clear, since the current problem is affecting only one part of the National Weather Service system—forecast.weather.gov, the part that holds all the local forecast information—chances are that warnings and forecast information are still getting out in other ways. But these days, as you know, the Internet is a pretty big deal.

For example, right now there’s a big heatwave hitting half the country, there’s flooding in Arizona, and we’re just days away from the peak of hurricane season. Last time something like this happened, there was an EF-3 tornado that went almost totally unwarned in your home state of New York, for example. It’s probably just good luck that no one died then.

The latest glitch was first reported by Gawker’s Dennis Mersereau, my nominee for your replacement, should things like this keep happening. Looks like you’re going to be on the Weather Channel’s new weather talk show this Sunday, where hopefully you’ll address exactly what happened today. (Update, Aug. 26, 2014: According to the NWS Telecommunications Operations Center Status, it seems like the problem has been fixed. Your spokesperson, Chris Vaccaro, also just sent me another email saying you would be talking about this issue this weekend on the Weather Channel. He also directed me to an independent report mandated by Congress last year that recommended changes to the National Weather Service's data dissemination structure.)

But, hey, it’s probably nothing. Let’s hope it just works itself out.

Happy Monday!

Eric

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.

  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 30 2014 7:27 PM The American Horror Story: Freak Show Podcast, Episode 4 The “Edward Mordrake (Part 2)” edition.