Chatham weather station will close before it falls into the ocean


CHATHAM, Mass. (WPRI) ─ The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather facility on Cape Cod is sitting precariously close to the edge of a cliff and could soon fall onto the beach below.

That’s why the agency has opted to permanently close that location.

The NOAA facility on the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge in Chatham has been releasing weather balloons twice a day for more than 50 years. The location also serves as a weather co-op station, providing temperature and rainfall data to meteorologists.

The NOAA Weather Balloon facility sitting near the edge of the cliff at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham. Courtesy Bryce Williams of the National Weather Service in Boston/Norton

But the information from the weather balloons and the co-op station could soon be lost due to substantial erosion, according to Andy Nash, the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service.

Erosion has been a known problem at the refuge for awhile, but Nash said it “really ramped up the last half of 2020,” putting the facility at risk of falling into the ocean.

“There were some changes to the sandbar offshore, which allowed the full wave action to get the beach at the base of the bluff, and that’s when things really started to happen,” Nash said.

The NOAA building (white top left) sitting close to the edge of the bluff which has been eroding away from ocean waves. Courtesy: Eileen McGourty, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Trees which once stood tall overlooking the ocean are now sliding down the cliff and onto the beach. Nash said each storm has caused the sandy cliff to shrink by six feet at a time.

In addition to the building being shuttered, trails around the wildlife refuge have also been closed.

Nash said that sea-level rise could be part of the problem, but the erosion is a natural process.

Weather balloons gather crucial temperature, humidity, pressure and wind data as they rise through the atmosphere.

The balloons are released from 92 locations across North America and the Pacific Islands. An instrument pack, called a radiosonde, is tethered to the balloon, and the radiosonde is tracked via GPS technology as it rises higher and higher through the air, sometimes to 100,000 feet above the surface.

“That information is used to see what is currently going on. It also goes into the computer models. It’s one piece of a large puzzle,” Nash said.

Meteorologists use computer models to make forecasts. Thankfully, there will still be weather balloons launched from Long Island and Maine, so meteorologists will still be able to estimate what is happening in Southern New England.

Nash said the goal is to re-establish a weather balloon site somewhere nearby, but the last balloon will be launched at the Monomoy site at 8 a.m. on March 31.

“Right now, the focus is getting out of where we are right now because it is unsafe … for the people that work there,” Nash said.

After finding a good location and getting the proper permits, it could be a year or more before weather balloons are launched again from Cape Cod.

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