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Heavy Internet weather

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:44 PM GMT on October 27, 2008

The tropical Atlantic remains quiet today. There are no threat areas to discuss, and none of our reliable models are calling for tropical storm formation over the next seven days. I'll have a full analysis of what the rest of the hurricane season might bring on Friday. I do think we have one more storm coming this year.

Heavy Internet weather
A record six consecutive tropical storms and hurricanes pounded the U.S. this hurricane season, creating some serious "Internet weather"--a flood of high Internet traffic. On September 12, as Hurricane Ike bore down on the Texas coast, our popular weather web site wunderground.com recorded its busiest day ever--28 million page views, triple its normal traffic. We vaulted from a ranking of 107th to 75th on the Quantcast, Inc. list of most-trafficked web sites in September, thanks to the huge amount of web traffic created by Tropical Storm Fay, Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Hanna, and Hurricane Ike. As hurricane season winds down, so has our ranking--we're down to 138th on the list of most-trafficked web sites. The ranking will rise again as we enter winter and winter storms begin pounding our population centers.

Historically, hurricanes have caused many Internet-wide bandwidth spikes, as people flocked to weather web sites for the latest advisories. The earliest such spike occurred on August 19, 1991, when Hurricane Bob roared into New England as a Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds. At the time, I was a Ph.D. student working in a University of Michigan weather research lab called MADLAB, run by Professor Perry Samson. Earlier that year, I had written a piece of software called "UM-weather" that allowed anyone at the University to access current weather information using a text-based menu system (this was back before the days of web browsers). The Internet backbone was centered in Ann Arbor and controlled by Merit Networking, Inc. in those days. The networking gurus at Merit showed us how to make "UM-weather" available to anyone on the Internet, and we launched the Internet's first global weather information portal in the summer of 1991. Word quickly spread via email and USENET news groups about this great new real-time Internet weather source. When Hurricane Bob hit, usage of the "UM-weather" service exploded, as tens of thousands of information-hungry Internet users consulted the latest hurricane advisories. "UM-weather" became the most popular service on the entire Internet that day, a position it held for much of 1991 and 1992, according to the experts at Merit. We expanded our educational project over the next few years with the help of National Science Foundation funding, and named it "The Weather Underground"--a tongue-in-cheek reference to the old radical group that also got its start at the University of Michigan.

With the arrival of the World Wide Web and the commercial Internet in 1995, we took our educational project and spun it off into a business. Hurricanes continued to be our biggest draws, and our biggest challenges. It's not easy to design a hardware and software system that can handle a 3x bandwidth spike. Major hurricanes like Fran of 1996 and Floyd of 1999 brought down every major commercial, government, and university weather web site for hours--sometimes days. Since the late 1990s, the industry has figured out how to handle 3x bandwidth spikes, and the days of searching in vain for a working weather web site during a major hurricane event are over.

Top Internet weather web sites as of October, 2008 according to quantcast.com:

Traffic on my blog averages about 50,000 page views per day. The record was on September 12, when 800,000 page views were recorded. Thanks for your support!

I'll have a new blog entry on Wednesday.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.