The U.S. National Weather Service’s data budget is hitting a ceiling, and it apparently doesn’t have the money to fix the situation. Now, the agency is considering throttling users who access its essential forecast data.
In a notice dated Nov. 18, 2020, the NWS said that it is seeking public comment on a proposal to impose data limits on users who access its wide range of public web services. “As demand for data continues to grow across NCEP websites, we are proposing to put new limits into place to safeguard our web services,” the memo says. “The frequency of how often these websites are accessed by the public has created limitations and infrastructure constraints.”
The note offers few details about the issues that NWS systems are encountering, but according to the Washington Post, the combination of increased data collection and increased demand for access to that data from private companies and hobbyists has created a bottleneck that at times has crashed NWS websites.
The proposal, which is open for public comment until Dec. 18, lists more than 50 URLs that would be rate-limited for users to 60 connections per minute. The Post spoke with representatives at forecasting giants like AccuWeather, private weather data services like the Commodity Weather Group, and hobbyists like TropicalTidBits.com, and all said that such a change could be disastrous for their respective practices.
Jonathan Porter, a vice president and general manager at the private forecasting firm AccuWeather, told the Post that he was confused by the plan and said, “it’s truly unfortunate that the NWS apparently does not recognise that this proposal is 100% contrary to its mission and its obligation to the American people.”
NWS sits within the Department of Commerce, which is essentially a huge data repository to help the U.S. remain economically competitive. Its forecasts contribute to that as well as the agency’s mission to keep Americans safe as the weather becomes increasingly turbulent due to the climate crisis. This record-setting Atlantic hurricane season and the role NWS data and forecasts played in issuing warnings by both the agency and private companies is a prime example of the value of having continued open access.
If nothing else, the data limits could cause services that rely on NWS data, like many smartphone weather apps, to be hours behind the real-time measurements they’ve been accustomed to accessing. Another possibility is that services switch to gathering information from competing agencies around the globe like the UK Met Office and ECMWF. But services that aggregate data from multiple agencies would be losing out. What’s more, it seems that this issue would be really cheap to fix.
The agency held a public hearing on Tuesday (you can watch the archive here, but you have to register). Answering user-submitted questions, officials said that the agency has estimated an expansion of broadband capacity at NWS would only cost $US1.5 ($2) million.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell sits on the committee that oversees the agency’s budget, and she told the Post that she thinks she could find support among her colleagues to make up for the budget shortfall. “Telling people to limit their use of this critical data is not an acceptable answer,” Cantwell said.