Nature Evicts Chatham Weather Station

By: Tim Wood

Tim Morrissette prepares to launch a weather balloon for the antepenultimate time (third from last) on Monday. TIM WOOD PHOTO

After Final Balloon Launch, Facility Shuts Down To Await Demolition

CHATHAM – The National Weather Service's Upper Air Station on Morris Island was scheduled to end more than half a century of weather balloon launches on Wednesday.

Closing the station is bittersweet, said Andy Nash, meteorologist in Chatham at the National Weather Service Norton office. “But mother nature is evicting us.”

The station is being decommissioned effective today (April 1) as the edge of the nearby coastal bluff gets closer and closer to the building, eaten away by erosion that necessitated the removal of a boardwalk and stairs to the beach by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The station is located at the headquarters of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

The two buildings, one with a white dome that was used for weather radar until 1994, and a cinderblock bunker-like structure, will be demolished and removed some time this month, said Nash.

The site, formally identified as KCHH, WMO identifier 74494, was scheduled to transmit its last set of weather data Wednesday morning. Upper air stations in Brookhaven and Albany, N.Y. and Gray, Maine will fill in the upper-air data gap, with supplemental balloon launches as weather conditions warrant, according to an announcement from the National Weather Service.

“We're going to miss the observations,” Nash said. “It gives us a snapshot, a profile of the atmosphere when the balloons go up.”

Chatham is one of 92 upper air stations operated by the Weather Service where radiosondes attached to weather balloons are launched twice daily to gather pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction and other data in the upper atmosphere. The information is essential for weather prediction and research, and feeds into the forecast provided by the Weather Service and commerce weather forecasters. While the radiosondes parachute back to earth and can be reused if found, most of those launched from Chatham end up in the ocean.

Similar balloons are released at the same hours worldwide at 800 locations, according to the National Weather Service. The agency launches the devices at 69 stations in the conterminous United States, 13 in Alaska, nine in the Pacific, and one in Puerto Rico, and supports the operation of 10 other stations in the Caribbean, according to a fact sheet on the weather service website.

According to a statement issued by the National Weather Service, the agency is “actively seeking a new site for upper air observations in southeastern New England and will provide the community with updates as we learn more.”

The Morris Island station's location proved crucial in the past. Frank Perry, who worked at the station for 40 years, said when a weather station in Land's End, England, wanted to enhance the European forecasting model, it required additional inform from Chatham. Weather balloons were released through the night and a large aircraft flew overhead to verify information.

Perry, a Harwich resident, also recalled being at the station during the Blizzard of 1978 and the “Perfect Storm” in 1991.

“I was stuck there for about five days,” he said, and continued to launch weather balloons during the storms.

Erosion of the bluff has increased steadily over the past year, with large sections slumping and tumbling to the beach below. The loss of South Beach has allowed higher tides and wave action flowing from the east to claw away at the bank, cutting off public access to the beach below.

In a statement, Linh Phu, manager of the Eastern Massachusetts Refuge Complex, which includes the Monomoy Refuge, said while erosion is a natural process, it can present management challenges for refuge officials, visitors, neighbors and partners such as the National Weather Service.

“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.”

Shortly after 7 p.m. Monday, Tim Morrissette, lead upper air weather observer at the station, walked the large weather balloon out of the station interior and attached the radiosondes. As two news photographers and a local resident watched, he let go of the balloon and flung the attached radiosondes after it. Rising at about 1,000 feet a minute, the balloon was soon out of sight in the darkening blue sky.

Morrissette said he plans to be on hand for the final balloon launch Wednesday. Nash said he will be there as well, after which computers will be unplugged and the process of removing equipment from the station will begin.