April 15, 2021

The Infrastructure Problems of the National Weather Service

 This is a lot of talk about the new infrastructure bill that is being considered in Congress.

Supporters of U.S. weather prediction and the National Weather Service need to get organized since the National Weather Service has profound infrastructure problems that need attention.  Serious enough that it is holding back the quality and reliability of weather information that is being provided to the American people.

Let me tell you about a few of them.

U.S. weather radars

 The current U.S. radar network was installed in the late 1980s and early 1990s and applies the radar technology of forty years ago, with some minor upgrades (dual polarization).  Furthermore, the radar network has major gaps in coverage including the Oregon coast, eastern Oregon, and large portions of eastern Washington (see map).   

Amazingly, the National Weather Service has no process in place to replace that current radar network (called NEXRAD or WSR-88D) and has given no priority to filling the radar gaps.  A major infrastructure upgrade is acutely required.

National Weather Service Computer Infrastructure

This is an area of profound need in many ways.   

    • Insufficient computing resources on which to run numerical weather prediction models.   At this point, the NOAA/NWS Environmental Modeling Center has inadequate computer resources to apply the physics, data assimilation, ensemble approaches, and resolution needed for state-of-the-art forecasting.  To do so, would require at least 100 times what they have now.  
    • They lack the computer resources for "hot" backups that would immediately take over when the primary system fails.    
    • Their current computer infrastructure lacks the bandwidth and capabilities to distribute even the current observational and modeling products, 
    • The NWS computer systems lack sufficient storage capabilities.
    • The current computer infrastructure has single failure modes, which results in the loss of important products.   This happened recently with the several-day loss of key marine products.
    • There is inadequate bandwidth (ability to communicate) between and to National Weather Service offices around the nation.
    • There are insufficient communication capabilities to derive maximum benefits from the current observing network.

The solution to this problem is a hybrid one:  more centralized computing capabilities for key model runs and far more extensive use of cloud computing for needs that are variable in time and for distributing data sets.

U.S Coastal and Ocean Buoys

NOAA/NWS maintains hundreds of ocean and coastal buoys that provide essential information for the safety of mariners.  Unfortunately, roughly half of the buoys (red colors in the map below) are not working or have major sensor failures.  NOAA/NWS has not upgraded and hardened the buoys and lack the resources to rapidly repair/replace broken or lost buoys. 

I could provide several other examples, but you get the point.  

The infrastructure of the National Weather Service needs a profound upgrading and improvement if the American people will be able to enjoy the skillful weather prediction required to protect lives and property, as well as promoting the productivity of the nation.

Hopefully, some of these needs will get into the infrastructure bill.


Announcement:  The Northwest Weather Workshop on May 1

The agenda for the Northwest Weather Workshop is up....please check it out here.  This meeting is the major local gathering to discuss the weather of the past year and the latest developments in understanding Northwest Weather. The meeting will be a half day (morning of May 1) and will be online.  Anyone interested can attend and we recommend you register if you want to be on our mailing list.


  1. Good luck with getting those changed. The NOAA is a government agency. Trump appointed politicians and businessmen to oversee that organization and pushed to cut the budgets in 2018 and in 2020. For FY21 the Trump administration proposed a nearly 14% budget cut for the NOAA.

    If you want any of those bells and whistles, it'll require congressional approval to raise the budgets and that requires... wait for it... higher taxes. Sorry folks, you can't complain about infrastructure - be it weather or roads - without accepting the reality that it requires more taxes. The most criminal part is even if you could convince Americans to pay more taxes for these things, they're almost always misused by corrupt forces within the government agencies or the contractors the government hires to perform the jobs.

    1. Everyone pays somehow. Either through taxes or "user fees" such as tolls, surcharges etc. The USA would rather have the choice of not paying the user fees (and foregoing the service) as opposed to involuntary paying of the taxes. Weather is becoming a big business, where eventually it could end up just another block of information behind a subscription paywall. If certain minded people had their way, every public domain service would go to that kind of model.

      Today's weather forecast is..."Subscribe now for just 10 dollars a month...".

      More than likely NOAA will just pay for the data generated by private weather firms as opposed to self generating and then just issue weather statements based upon that data purchased. Severe weather warnings should still be in the public domain. Private industry would own the radars, the satellites and the computational power for modelling. NOAA would just pay for the right to issue "Official" statements. No one wants: "There could be a tornado touching down near you. For only a nominal charge of $20 dollars, you can find out....". Well, most of normal everyday people already being soaked would not want that. Politicians and big business certainly would not mind such a model, however.

      Which really is the key to all this.

      Some would argue everything needs a profit motive but its not like you can pick who your sewer line or power drop belongs to. Unless you want to poop in a Honey Bucket rental and go full solar. Fully private infrastructure..as in all Public Works, Parks, roadways etc would work as long as people can afford the user fees. Of course, the poor would not be able to afford to even use a sidewalk in theory and not paying those sidewalk fees could amount to "Theft of Services".

      Do we really need to go there? Personally I would rather just pay the taxes then have everything be at the whim of the markets.

  2. What shocks me most about that map, besides the fact that it has any white/no coverage areas at all, is that there are chunks of Tornado Alley that don't have coverage below 10k feet.

  3. This assumes an infrastructure bill will actually pass before 2022....

    *queue the laugh track*


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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