HEADER PHOTO CREDIT: MICHAEL (@OAXRWBKD – TWITTER)
When severe storms moved through Arkansas last week, someone in another state filed 5 false Arkansas storm reports, a meteorologist said.
One of the filed reports* contributed to the National Weather Service’s (NWS) decision to upgrade a tornado warning to a tornado emergency.
*A large tornado heading toward Jacksonville and Cabot, AR.
“How much that one reported played into that decision, I can’t say for sure” Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist with the NWS in North Little Rock, AR.
“We also had a report of an emergency manager saying there was significant damage to homes behind that storm. The significant damage to homes wasn’t from a tornado. It was from hail. Large hail was being blown at 60 and 70 miles per hour (mph) and blowing the roofs off homes.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said the false AR storm reports came from a woman in Cleveland, Ohio. He stated that the woman knew enough about weather to report things that looked plausible to meteorologists.
“It has real life repercussions. In this case it did not result in somebody getting hurt, which is great. But when you get too many of these false reports, it results in the degradation of our warnings. We have to make a warning decision in seconds.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said the woman allegedly hacked into Spotter Network, a platform used by storm chasers. Spotter Network reports are directly sent to NWS chat, a platform which allows meteorologists at the NWS to communicate with the media, emergency works and others to get information before issuing a warning.
Cavanaugh said NWS employees don’t see the name of the person who files the report with Spotter Network, but the platform lets chasers/storm spotters to enter their own latitude and longitude. Clearly, the woman in OH put AR coordinates instead.
“The fact that their software allows people to falsify their latitude and longitude is a vulnerability. That’s not their intention, of course.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said Spotter Network reports always come with the word unverified.
“But it’s done that for 16 years. When Spotter Network reports have been coming in and 99% of the time they’re made in good faith, you build a trust in that vehicle.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said reports from storm spotters can be wrong sometimes, however, not “maliciously false” as they were in this particular case.
The president of Spotter Network, John Wetter, hasn’t responded to an email sent by Cavanaugh Tuesday last week. Cavanaugh said Wetter didn’t respond because he was probably very busy.
“I think this event has caused national scrutiny on Spotter Network.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said the same woman in OH filed 3 false reports with the NWS in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the same day as the AR severe storms. The warning coordination meteorologist in Tulsa was off work that day. The Tulsa NWS office covers the weather in 7 counties in Northwest AR.
“Spotter Network has a very clean history of good reports being sent via its software, but it only takes one bad report to cause a loss of trust in the community and the warning system. it has become harder for us at the [NWS] to trust anything coming from Spotter Network now that we’re aware of this vulnerability. That’s not fair to Spotter Network. They didn’t maliciously send out a bad report, but somebody used their network to send out a bad report.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said the Spotter Network program could be changed to rely on a global positioning system, however, storm chasers sometimes need to put in different coordinates to let people know where a tornado is located.
Alex Libby, weekend meteorologist with KARK television in Little Rock, AR said they rely heavily on the NWS warnings to convey useful information to the public.
“We covered it as a serious situation, as a tornado emergency.”Alex Libby, weekend meteorologist, KARK
But shortly afterwards, it was downgraded to a tornado warning again. Cavanaugh said Spotter Network figured out there was a problem with this Ohio reporter a couple of hours after the storms moved through AR that night last week.
Spotter Network tracked the woman’s internet protocol address, Cavanaugh said. When contacted, the woman said someone had hacked her phone and filed the false reports.
“Spotter Network asked for proof, but she didn’t comply, so they banned her account.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said it’s a federal crime to make false reports to the NWS. However, it would be difficult to get access to data on her phone without her cooperation. And cellphone companies can be reluctant to provide such information.
“To my knowledge nobody has contacted the FBI about this and I don’t think anybody is going to. We feel it would probably be a waste of the FBI’s time. The most they could do is confiscate her phone…At this time, we don’t have any direct interest in trying to prosecute her.”Dennis Cavanaugh, warning and coordination meteorologist, NWS in North Little Rock, AR
Cavanaugh said the NWS needs more storm spotters reporting in good faith. Essentially, this will make “erroneous reports” more evident.
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