Town, Feds Near Agreement On Weather Station; Airport Site Would Replace One Lost To Erosion

by Alan Pollock

CHATHAM – Town officials are optimistic about the prospects of hosting a new upper air weather station in Chatham, after the old site on Morris Island was lost to erosion. And weather forecasters are hopeful that they will once again have access to the atmospheric data that the site once provided.

“We are making terrific progress with this,” airport commission Chair Huntley Harrison told the commission on March 13. The town is finalizing a lease agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, for a parcel of land on airport grounds which would house the upper air station’s two buildings. The 20-year lease calls for the weather service to provide design, permitting, site work and construction at their expense.

“And we also added onto that a statement regarding decommissioning, in case at some point in the future they decide to leave the site,” he said. In that case, the weather service would be required to return the property to its original state.

As with the former station on Morris Island, the new upper air station would include a small hangar building where weather balloons would be inflated and launched twice daily, and a smaller building where data from each launch would be collected and transmitted. The former station was decommissioned on April 1, 2021 when it became clear it would eventually be claimed by erosion.

“It was an unfortunate loss of data for us,” said Meteorologist Kristie Smith at the National Weather Service forecast office in Norton, Mass., which covers most of southern New England. “But we are very lucky that a lot of our neighboring offices still have balloons.” Currently, data from balloon-borne radiosondes is available from stations on eastern Long Island, Albany, N.Y., and Gray, Maine. From them, forecasters can get a “generally representative sample of the atmosphere around southern New England,” Smith said. A limited amount of upper air data also comes from soundings from aircraft passing over the area, she said.

The Chatham upper air station provided information on temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction at various altitudes at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily, and more frequently when severe weather threatened. Those observations were particularly useful for understanding offshore storms, rather than conditions over land.

“Chatham is really on the extreme eastern edge of our area,” Smith said, and the information the station provided was “most important for severe weather” like thunderstorm outbreaks.

Harrison said he approached the meteorologist in charge of the Norton forecast office in 2021 about the possibility of the airport providing a replacement site for the station, and talks have been underway for more than two years. NOAA provided a sample lease for the site, which the town modified and sent back for review. The current draft is being reviewed by Town Counsel Patrick Costello, and the town has also submitted draft site plans for NOAA officials to consider.

Smith said that, as of this week, talks are still underway at the local, regional and national levels of the Weather Service about the best possible replacement site, which may or may not be in Chatham.

“We don’t have a decision on that point,” she said. It’s not clear when a final decision will be made, but the government can work slowly with these kinds of talks, she added.

Harrison sounded more optimistic, saying he doesn’t believe any other sites are under serious consideration.

“There’s still some work to do there, but I think this is almost a done deal. It’s not signed, sealed and delivered, but it’s almost there,” he said. “That’s going to be a nice thing for the town, a nice thing for the airport.”

“It’s kind of a complex process,” Smith said. “But we are very eager to get that site back.”