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Station Falls From Its Weathering Heights

October 17, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles' hottest weather station has been knocked out cold.

This time, though, it's not scorching heat -- such as the record-breaking 119-degree reading recorded there on July 22 -- that is to blame for the meltdown at the Pierce College station in Woodland Hills.

A new computer-security firewall installed two weeks ago to keep hackers off the college's computer network is apparently also keeping the National Weather Service out of its 57-year-old station.

The shutdown is frustrating weather-watchers throughout the world who follow the ups and downs of the station's thermometer daily.

"It's the Rolls-Royce of local weather stations" and therefore a favorite of weather junkies, said Jet Propulsion Laboratory meteorologist William Patzert.

"There's literally thousands of people who follow the weather, like amateur weather forecasters," Patzert said. "This is like cutting people off from their morning coffee.... They're missing their weather fix. You can always get your coffee at Dunkin' Donuts, but if you're used to Starbucks.... You know what I mean?"

Along with the honor of being the hottest spot in Los Angeles County history with its blistering 119-degree mark, the tiny fenced-in station has recorded the coldest reading ever in the Los Angeles Basin. That was an icy 18 degrees on Feb. 6, 1989.

Anxious weather observers are pleading with college computer gurus to fix the National Weather Service connection before expected winter El Nino rains arrive.

"We don't know for sure what the basis of the issue is," acknowledged Bruce Rosky, an information technology supervisor at Pierce College. The new firewall is part of an enhanced computer security system being installed at all Los Angeles Community College District campuses, he said.

The automated weather station normally feeds updated temperature, wind speed, precipitation, humidity and dew point readings every 10 minutes to the National Weather Service in Oxnard and to the station's website.

Since the 119-degree reading made headlines 12 weeks ago, the weather station website has attracted thousands of viewers -- many from around the world.

But the stream of weather data came to a sudden end at 4:50 a.m. on Oct. 2 (when, for the record, it was 62 degrees in Woodland Hills). That is apparently the moment that the new campus firewall system was activated.

William Russell, a professor of meteorology and geography who is in charge of the station, said the various readings have continued to be collected and are being stored for now in an archive. They will be posted and made accessible to the public on the station website when its connection with the outside world is finally restored, he said.

Weather station workers have taken advantage of the outage to replace the station's aging computer with a newer, more powerful model.

"We were worried the old one was on its last legs," Russell said. "It gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter sitting out there. The new one has two fans to keep it cool. We got it from NOAA" -- the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that operates the National Weather Service.

Surrounded by open space, the Pierce College weather station is located away from hot asphalt parking lots and campus buildings that could affect temperature and wind readings. Professional climatologists consider it among the nation's most accurate stations because it is well maintained and has not been moved since its inception.

Patzert jokingly compared the computer glitch to the killer computer in the movie "2001."

"They got blocked out by technology," Patzert said. "They got rid of all the hackers, but they also locked out all the weather geeks. It's overkill. HAL locked us out of our hourly weather fix."

Steve Woodruff, a Van Nuys Airport weather station supervisor who also oversees the Pierce College station, said he has been inundated with e-mails from weather watchers around the world who miss the Woodland Hills measurements and their often wild extremes.

"We've always prided ourselves that this is one of the nation's elite stations with a consistent, reliable wealth of weather data," Woodruff said. "We've always said we only have a few gaps in our data from 1949," most notably a three-day period in 1960 when Halloween vandals destroyed station equipment.

"I'm getting a lot of sarcastic messages -- people saying this is way more than a 'three-day gap,' " he said.

As long as the Pierce College station remains under the weather, Woodruff will be the one feeling the heat.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.

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