National Weather Service Warning System Hobbled by Outage at Worst Possible Time



5_22_14_andrew_nwsforecaster
National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Rose works at the NWS facility in Old Hickory, Tenn.

As severe thunderstorms, some spawning damaging tornadoes, erupted across the country from Denver, Colorado, to Albany, New York, a widespread data outage hit the National Weather Service (NWS) on Thursday. Radar data stopped flowing to mobile apps and NWS websites for at least a half an hour, and at least some NWS offices lost the ability to disseminate severe weather warnings through automated means, turning instead to social media.
In a post on its Facebook page at about 4:45 p.m. ET, the National Weather Service forecast office in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, which covers the Philadelphia metro area, stated: "Our products are NOT being sent out at this time due to technical issue. All warnings will be sent via social media."
A NWS spokesman told Mashable in an email that it was not yet known to what degree the outage in the agency's telecommunications gateway affected the agency's "products," which include forecasts, watches and warnings.

Christopher Vaccarro said the agency is "Still gathering the facts but what we know so far ... it appears a firewall upgrade caused the anomaly lasting 31 minutes. We are looking into the extent in which product issuance may have been affected. Product issuance seems to be back to normal now."
In a follow-up email after Mashable asked Vaccarro for more details about the "anomaly," he said:
"Software upgrade to the firewall. Determining extent of impact ... Issue seems to have been resolved."

He later added, using the acronym for weather forecast offices, "With the ongoing threat of severe weather and systems operating properly we'll look closer at how WFOs may have been impacted after the current weather situation settles down. Although we will continue to look into the root cause."
Considering that the typical lead time for a tornado warning is about 14 minutes nationwide, if a tornado warning was issued during the outage and not delivered to local emergency management officials and the public, it's possible that no one ever got the message before the tornado hit. Confirmed tornado touchdowns were reported near Albany, New York, with funnel clouds spotted in Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland around the time of the outage.
One thing that is clear is that weather apps were affected, as radar data stopped flowing to many of them, including RadarScope, which is widely used by storm chasers, meteorologists and pilots.
Weather forecasters, chasers, and regular people vented their frustration about the outage on Twitter.


A tornado warning near Albany, New York may not have reached many people in the twister's path, unless they were monitoring Twitter or Facebook at the time. That storm caused significant damage, based on preliminary reports.





The NWS has suffered several bouts with technical problems in the past two years, but this one may have been the most consequential. In April, many people could not reach the website for the NWS office that is responsible for issuing tornado watches across the country, known as the Storm Prediction Center, for example. For a time, the NWS homepage at weather.gov displayed neither watches nor warnings.




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