For half a century, the National Weather Service has been tracking storms and atmospheric conditions on Cape Cod from an outpost in Chatham. Now those very same elements have claimed the research facility.
The service shuttered the operation Wednesday, launching a final weather balloon before preparing the site for demolition in April after coastal erosion raised fears the property could fall into the ocean, officials said.
The Chatham offices are in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, on a coastal bluff, said the National Weather Service’s Boston meteorologist-in-charge, Andy Nash. Despite its “beautiful location,” the office is quickly becoming an unsafe place to work as a result of coastal erosion, which has accelerated rapidly in the last six months.
What used to be 100 feet between the building and the cliff has become just 30 feet, Nash said. A single weather event can bring 6 feet of erosion, he said.
The buildings will be demolished before they “fall into the ocean,” Nash said. A timeline has not been set, but Nash said he expects demolition to occur in mid-April.
Initially, the plan was to identify a new site and build up operations there before closing the Chatham offices. Now, there will be no weather balloons launched in Massachusetts for at least the next year while the Weather Service seeks a new site, which Nash hopes will be on Cape Cod.
Leaving Chatham is “bittersweet,” he said, because the Weather Service has had a presence there for 50 years.
The Chatham station was responsible for launching weather balloons carrying instrument packages twice a day. The balloons help meteorologists track the atmosphere and thus draw conclusions about the weather. Chatham is one of 92 sites that launch balloons across the United States — all of which send them up twice a day at the same time, Nash said.
[1/2] After 50+ years of launching weather balloons at Upper Air Station Chatham (CHH), this A.M. was our last. @NWS thanks the contracted weather observers for their work collecting meteorological data, twice daily over the years.— NWS Boston (@NWSBoston) March 31, 2021
📸: Meteorologist-In-Charge Andy Nash #mawx pic.twitter.com/FJ2sv4x9nR
Losing the data from the weather balloons is “more of a nuisance” as it is just “one piece of the puzzle,” Nash said. “One observation is not an end-of-the-world situation for us.”
Meteorologists will still be able to draw information from nearby upper-air sites like those in Brookhaven, N.Y.; Gray, Maine; and Albany, N.Y., according to a Weather Service statement.
In the statement, the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge said it would work with the Weather Service to relocate its operation.
“Though it is a natural process, coastal shoreline erosion can present management challenges and we know it is an issue of concern to refuge visitors and our neighbors,” the statement said. “We are committed to working with partners and landowners to mitigate impacts, adapt operations, and relocate facilities, such as the National Weather Service’s Chatham Upper Air Station, as conditions warrant.”
Jack Clarke, a member of the state’s coastal erosion commission, said erosion has been an issue on the Outer Cape for thousands of years but has accelerated quickly because of climate change.
“On the Massachusetts coast, especially on the Outer Cape on Cape Cod, which is essentially a sandbar, coastal erosion has been a fact of life for about 3,000 years,” he said. “As glaciers melt, sea level rises, erosion takes place. However, due to climate change, coastal erosion has accelerated significantly on some of the outer barrier islands and barrier beaches, such as we see down in Monomoy off Chatham.”
On average, Outer Cape beaches lose 2.5 to 3 feet of sand a year, but some areas, including the Monomoy barrier islands where the Chatham weather station was located, lose more.
Clarke said his message for residents would be to mount “a slow and gradual retreat from the shoreline . . . because there’s no way of stopping Mother Nature from eroding.”