The Washington Post published a report today stating that Chinese hackers infiltrated NOAA's satellite network in September, resulting in a multi-day data outage when the agency reacted to the breach in October. The agency failed to report the incident to the Commerce Department until November 4.
NOAA—the parent agency to the National Weather Service—experienced a major weather satellite data outage from October 21 through October 23 that, was attributed to unscheduled maintenance. The agency did not reveal until this afternoon that the "unscheduled maintenance" was due to a security breach.
The interruption in service affected the ability to feed crucial data into weather forecasting models. If the outage had lasted any longer that a couple of days, it would have had a noticeable effect on weather forecast accuracy not only in the United States, but around the world.
The Washington Post contacted Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) about the allegations, and he confirmed to the publication that China was behind the hack:
"NOAA told me it was a hack and it was China," said Wolf, who also scolded the agency for not disclosing the attack "and deliberately misleading the American public in its replies."
"They had an obligation to tell the truth," Wolf said. "They covered it up."
The incident tops off a string of embarrassing and dangerous technical issues that NOAA and the National Weather Service have experienced over the past year, including a hydrologist arrested for downloading classified information about dams, a major communication issue that led to an EF-3 tornado touching down with virtually no warning, and an Android app that single-handedly took down the National Weather Service's website back in August.
Jason Samenow, the Washington Post's weather editor who contributed to the hacking report, took to the Capital Weather Gang to further elaborate on the potential impacts a future satellite outage on weather forecasting. The two-day outage degraded the agency's five-day forecast enough that it was comparable to a five-and-a-half-day forecast—not anything the public would notice—but a longer outage could have serious implications.
Samenow notes that we could see a gap in satellite coverage in the next few years:
The October data outage in addition to exposing security vulnerabilities to NOAA's satellite network may, in some ways, be a sneak preview of the predicament NOAA could face starting in 2016 due to a possible gap in the coverage of polar orbiting satellites. The gap would arise from a break between the design life time of one of its current satellites and the projected launch of its replacement in 2017. In 2013, theGovernment Accountability Office cited the looming gap as one of the top 30 challenges facing the Federal government.
In addition to launching the aforementioned satellite, NOAA is actively working to upgrade its forecast capabilities despite recent setbacks. In addition to making its High Resolution Rapid Refresh weather model operational last month, the agency recently released a parallel upgrade to the Global Forecast System (GFS) model, which enhances resolution and provides tweaks for accuracy.