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Climate Change Claims Climate-Monitoring Weather Station on Cape Cod

Monomoy Demolition 1
Eve Zuckoff
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Andy Nash, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Boston, walks around the soon-to-be demolished weather station at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Morris Island.

On a sunny day at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Cod, meteorologist Andy Nash marvels -- and worries -- about what he sees.

“There's a really nice view of the ocean right now. It's pretty. You can see sandbars off in the distance,” said Nash, who’s in charge of the National Weather Service office in Boston. “Six [or] eight months ago, you couldn't see that water because there was another 50 to 80 feet of bluff and trees. That’s all gone now. And hence the need for us to be gone, too.”

On-site biologists, meteorologists, and nature-loving daytrippers can see that all that erosion has jeopardized a squat, grey-shingled outpost the National Weather Service has used for the last 50 years to take atmospheric readings twice a day.

This month, Nash and others have watched as workers began dismantling the building. Before it was decommissioned this spring, it was one of just 92 sites across the country where government meteorologists routinely launched weather balloons to collect climate data.

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But since November, the bluff on which the weather station sits has eroded at a rate of 1.78 feet each week, on average. Now, all that stands between the building and the sea is 30 feet of sand. It’s a cruel irony: in this place where scientists study Mother Nature, she’s telling them to leave.

“You look at it with awe,” said Eileen McGourty, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who’s stationed at the wildlife refuge.

“You could see a tree on the bank edge and you're like, ‘OK, that tree's not going to be there for very long.’ And then you come after a storm or something … all the dirt had come down with it and you could just smell dirt in the air,” she said, “and the tree actually slides down the bluff, kind of, like, surfs its way down.”

Scientists trace the crisis back to 2017, when an April Fools’ Day storm cut a channel through one of the sandbars that acts as a barrier beach. It had been protecting the bluff from the full force of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Unfortunately, the flow that's going through there is just ripping that sand away from the area,” said Mark Borelli, a coastal geologist at the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod.

The problem, he said, will most likely be exacerbated by climate change. More intense storms and rising sea levels will make the ocean slam higher, harder, and longer into the soft bluffs.

“In the 20th century, we had about a foot of sea level rise,” he said. “Well, that's going to be what we're going to see per decade if the worst case scenario happens. It’s not going to be linear. You're not going to see a foot every decade, but it's going to… be exponential."

Monomoy Demolition 2
Eve Zuckoff
Mike Rutt, a demolition specialist with SafeDem USA, uses a reciprocating saw to take apart the fiberglass dome that sits atop the soon-to-be-demolished weather station at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

Beyond the weather station, the impacts of the rapid erosion are causing fears for the wider community, where dozens of homes sit above the same shifting sands. Residents take wary comfort in the protection of a rock revetment to the east.

“Every single year the landscape changes,” said Debbie Cordo, who lives near the refuge, “and it's been kind of heartbreaking.”

Soon, McGourty said, a boat yard, shed, and dormitory for seasonal fish-and-wildlife workers on the refuge will be in harm’s way, too.

“I’ll be actually -- in the next few months -- laying a line of flags, basically a line in the sand, literally, that says, ‘Once bluff erosion reaches this point, that triggers that this building will have to be removed,’” she said.

The last traces of the weather station are expected to be gone in the coming weeks. Already, the National Weather Service is looking for a new location to launch its balloons, ideally somewhere that won’t be at risk of falling into the ocean anytime soon.

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Jan Crocker Volunteer Media Producer/USFWS
A screenshot from a video of the demolition shows an excavator tearing down the weather station at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.