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

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.