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NWS Valid Time Extent Code (VTEC) Archives

Summary

The National Weather Service uses a rather complex and extensive suite of products and methodologies to issue watch, warnings, and advisories (WWA). Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the automated processing of these products was extremely difficult and rife with errors. To help with automated parsing, the NWS implemented a system called Valid Time Extent Code (VTEC) which provides a more programatic description of what an individual WWA product is doing. The implementation of began in 2005 and was mostly wrapped up by 2008. The IEM attempts to do high fidelity processing of this data stream and has a number of Internet unique archives and applications to view this information.

  • Download Interface: Shapefile/KML Download
  • Spatial Domain: United States, including Guam, Puerto Rico and some other islands
  • Temporal Domain: Most WWA types back to 2008 or 2005, an archive of Flash Flood Warnings goes back to 2002 or so, and Tornado / Severe Thunderstorm Warnings goes back to 1986

Justification for processing

NWS issued WWA alerts are an important environmental hazard dataset and has broad interest in the research and insurance industries. Even in 2017, there are very few places that you can find long term archives of this information in usable formats.

Other Sources of Information

The National Center for Environmental Information has raw text product archives that do not contain processed atomic data of the actual WWA alerts. So the user is left to the adventure of text parsing the products. Otherwise, it is not clear if any other archive exists on the Internet of this information.

Processing and Quality Control

The pyIEM python package is the primary code that does the text parsing and databasing of the WWA products. A large number of unit tests exist against the various variations and quirks found with processing the WWA data stream since the mid 2000s. New quirks and edge cases are still found today with minor corrections made to the archive when necessary. The IEM continuously alerts and annoys the NWS when various issues are found, hoping to get the NWS to correct their products. While it has been a long and frustrating process, things do eventually get fixed leading to more robust data archives.

The pyIEM parsers send emails to the IEM developer when issues are found. The parser alerts when the following errors are encountered:

  • VTEC Event IDs (ETNs) being used that are out of sequential order.
  • Warning product segments are missing or have invalid Universal Geographic Code (UGC) encoding
  • Product segment has invalid VTEC encoding
  • Polygons included in the warning are invalid or counterclockwise
  • Timestamps are formatted incorrectly
  • The UGC / VTEC sequence of a particular product contains logical errors, for example a UGC zone silently drops out or into a warning.
  • Products are expired outside of the acceptable temporal bounds
  • Any other type of error and/or code bug that caused a processing fault

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Please fully describe the schema used within the downloaded shapefiles.

    Grab some coffee and headache medicine as I am going to try to explain how the IEM processes these events into the database. The first concept to understand is that when the NWS issues a Watch, Warning, Advisory (WaWA) event, this event undergoes a lifecycle. The NWS can issue updates that modify the start and end times of the event and the spatial extent of the event. They can also do upgrades on the event, for example moving from a watch into a warning. The IEM database does not necessary fully document the event's lifecycle, but provides the metadata for the last known state of the event.

    For the context of IEM provided shapefiles, here is a discussion of what each DBF column represents. We will go into an example afterwards attempting to illustrate what each column means.

    But first, the timestamps. The presented timestamps are always in UTC timezone. The timestamp is represented by a 12 character string in the form of year, month, day, 24-hour,minute. To my knowledge, there is no timestamp data type in DBF, so this is the pain we have to live with.

    DBF Column Type Description
    WFO 3 Char This is the three character NWS Office/Center identifier. For CONUS locations, this is the 4 character ID dropping the first K. For non-CONUS sites, this is the identifier dropping the P.
    ISSUED 12 Char This timestamp represents the start time of the event. When an event's lifecycle begins, this issued value can be updated as the NWS issues updates. The value presented represents the last known state of the event start time.
    EXPIRED 12 Char Similiar to the ISSUED column above, this represents the products event end time. Again, this value is updated as the event lifecycle happens with updates made by the NWS.
    INIT_ISS 12 Char This is timestamp of the NWS Text Product that started the event. This timestamp is important for products like Winter Storm Watch, which have a begin time a number of days/hours into the future, but are typically considered to be in effect at the time of the text product issuace. Yeah, this is where the headaches start. This timestamp can also be used to form a canonical URL back to the IEM to fetch the raw NWS Text for this event. It is not updated during the event's lifecycle.
    INIT_EXP 12 Char Similiar to INIT_ISS above, this is the expiration of the event denoted with the first issuance of the event. It is not updated during the event's lifecycle.
    PHENOM or TYPE 2 Char This is the two character NWS identifier used to denote the VTEC event type. For example, TO for Tornado and SV for Severe Thunderstorm. A lookup table of these codes exists here.
    SIG 1 Char This is the one character NWS identifier used to denote the VTEC significance. The same link above for PHENOM has a lookup table for these.
    GTYPE 1 Char Either P for polygon or C for county/zone/parish. The shapefiles you download could contain both so-called storm-based (polygon) events and traditional county/zone based events.
    ETN Int The VTEC event identifier. A tracking number that should be unique for this event, but sometimes it is not. Yes, more headaches. Note that the uniqueness is not based on the combination of a UGC code, but the issuance center and a continuous spatial region for the event.
    STATUS 3 Char The VTEC status code denoting the state the event is during its life cycle. This is purely based on any updates the event got and not some logic on the IEM's end denoting if the event is in the past or not.
    NWS_UGC 6 Char For county,zone,parish warnings GTYPE=C, the Universal Geographic Code that the NWS uses. Sadly, this is not exactly FIPS.
    AREA_KM2 Number The IEM computed area of this event, this area computation is done in Albers (EPSG:2163).
    UPDATED 12 Char The timestamp when this event's lifecycle was last updated by the NWS.
    HV_NWSLI 5 Char For events that have H-VTEC (Hydro VTEC), this is the five character NWS Location Identifier.
    HV_SEV 1 Char For events that have H-VTEC (Hydro VTEC), this is the one character flood severity at issuance.
    HV_CAUSE 2 Char For events that have H-VTEC (Hydro VTEC), this is the two character cause of the flood.
    HV_REC 2 Char For events that have H-VTEC (Hydro VTEC), this is the code denoting if a record crest is expected at issuance.
    EMERGENC Boolean Based on unofficial IEM logic, is this event an "Emergency" at any point during its life cycle.
    POLY_BEG 12 Char In the case of polygons (GTYPE=P) the UTC timestamp that the polygon is initially valid for.
    POLY_END 12 Char In the case of polygons (GTYPE=P) the UTC timestamp that the polygon expires at.
    HAILTAG Number The IBW hail size tag (inches). This is only included with the (GTYPE=P) entries as there is a 1 to 1 association between the tags and the polygons. If you do not include SVS updates, it is just the issuance tag.
    WINDTAG Number The IBW wind gust tag (MPH). See HAILTAG.
    TORNTAG 16 Char The IBW tornado tag. See HAILTAG.
    DAMAGTAG 16 Char The IBW damage tag. See HAILTAG.
    PROD_ID 36 Char Issuance text. IEM identifier used to uniquely (99% of the time) identify NWS Text Products. The value can be passed to https://mesonet.agron.iastate.edu/p.php?pid=PROD_ID for a website viewer or against the IEM API service https://mesonet.agron.iastate.edu/api/1/nwstext/PROD_ID.
  2. I notice entires with an expire timestamp before the issue timestamp. How can this be?

    Oh my, buckle up for some confusion. The first point in this space is that our database represents the most recent snapshot of the given VTEC event during its life cycle. The life cycle includes the issuance to its death via a cancels, expiration, or upgrade to a different VTEC event.

    To illustrate the evolution of the database fields with a VTEC event lifecycle, please consider this example. At noon on 19 March 2019, NWS Des Moines wfo=DMX issues a Winter Storm Watch phenom=WS sig=A for Story County (nws_ugc=IAZ048). This watch goes into effect at 6 PM (tomorrow, 20 March) until 6 AM 21 March. The storm is a day away yet... The database entry looks like so:

    STATUS ISSUE INIT_ISS EXPIRE INIT_EXP
    NEW 201903202300 201903171700 201903211100 201903211100

    Now tomorrow comes and the NWS needs to decide what to do with the watch prior to 6 PM, since these type of watches can not reach their issuance time without either being cancelled or upgraded. So at 5 PM, the NWS decides to issue a Winter Storm Warning. Now the database entry for the watch looks like so:

    STATUS ISSUE INIT_ISS EXPIRE INIT_EXP
    UPG 201903202300 201903171700 201903202200 201903211100

    See how the EXPIRE column is now less than the ISSUE column, but the INIT_ISS and INIT_EXP columns are unchanged to hopefully help the end user deal with this situation. You have life choices to make on how to deal with this situation.

    In general, the watch practically is in effect once the NWS issued it, regardless of when the actual bad weather is going to start. So the recommendation is to use the INIT_ISS column as the watch start time and the EXPIRE as the watch end time, but this logic is totally at your discretion.

  3. How do Severe Thunderstorm, Flash Flood, or Tornado warnings have VTEC codes for dates prior to implementation?

    Good question! A number of years ago, a kind NWS manager provided a database dump of their curated WWA archive for dates between 1986 and 2005. While not perfect, this archive was the best/only source that was known at the time. The IEM did some logic processing and attempted to back-compute VTEC ETNs for this archive of warnings. The database was atomic to a local county/parish, so some logic was done to merge multiple counties when they spatially touched and had similiar issuance timestamps. Again from the above, automated machine parsing of the raw text is next to impossible. The ETNs were assigned as a convience so that various IEM apps and plots would present this data online.

  4. The database has Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) issuing WWA products for dates prior to the office even existing? How can this be!?!?

    Yeah, this is somewhat poor, but was done to again provide some continuity with current day operations. The archive database provided to the IEM did not contain the issuance forecast office, so without a means to properly attribute these, the present day WFOs were used. This issue is rarely raised by IEM users, but it is good to document. Maybe someday, a more authoritative archive will be made and these old warnings and be assigned to the various WSOs, etc that existed at the time.

  5. What are the VTEC phenomena and significance codes?

    The phenomena code (two characters) and significance code (one character) denote the particular WWA hazzard at play with the product. The NWS VTEC Site contains a one pager PDF that documents these codes. The NWS uses these codes to color encode their WAWA Map found on their homepage. You can find a lookup reference table of these codes and colors here.

  6. How do polygon warnings exist in the IEM archive prior to being official?

    The NWS offices started experimenting with polygons beginning in 2002. These polygons were included with the warnings, but sometimes were not geographically valid and/or leaked well outside of a local office's CWA bounds. On 1 October 2007, these polygons became the official warning for some VTEC types. In general, the IEM's data ingestor attempts to save these polygons whenever found.