In the tiny town of Chatham, a seaside community on the southeastern tip of Cape Cod, sits the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge. Since 1944, this facility operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service has provided a safe habitat for migratory birds and released weather balloons that measure atmospheric conditions and help us understand climate change.
Late last month, according to The Guardian, the National Weather Service (NWS) abandoned the station and closed it permanently. While the researchers were watching the skies, the ground beneath their feet started to disappear as erosion, driven in part by the types of extreme weather conditions that climate change causes, has made the bluff that the building is settled on all but disappear. The changes have happened so fast that the entire facility is now at risk of falling into the ocean. It's hard to say for sure, but it certainly feels like the Earth swallowing a climate change research outpost whole might be a bad omen.
The fact that the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge was not long for this world was not exactly a surprise to the people who worked there. Erosion had been a longstanding issue, and there was only about 100 feet between the bluff that housed the building and the ocean. Still, the NWS thought it'd be able to eke out some more research before things got this bad. "We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week," Andy Nash, a meteorologist at the NWS Boston office, told The Guardian. "[We] realized we didn't have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem." Several storms that hit Cape Cod over the course of 2020 accelerated the problem, in some cases taking as much as 6 feet of land in a single day.
By the time the NWS finally decided to close up shop for good, it was down to just 30 feet of clearance between the building and the ocean below. The facility's parking lot was already lost to erosion, and Nash told The Guardian that he was afraid that researchers releasing weather balloons might accidentally step off the rapidly shrinking bluff and tumble into the sea.
The Cape Cod area has undergone quite a bit of physical change over the last few decades. Rapidly rising sea levels, the result of the planet warming, have resulted in shrinking shorelines around the coast of the peninsula. This has become something of an existential threat for those who live on the small stretch of land. As the water levels continue to creep up higher and increasingly bad storms cause the coastal community to lose land, it may be a matter of time before the vulnerability becomes too much to ignore and residents of the region go the way of the NWS researchers: leaving before their homes are swallowed by the sea.
The Monomoy Wildlife Refuge will be dismantled before the ocean can finish the job, robbing the planet of the satisfaction of taking back from us what we took from it. But the researchers who used the facility to send up weather balloons will be back at it soon. According to a report from local news station WPRI, there are plans to establish a new research center nearby in the near future. From there, the NWS will be able to continue tracking how the planet is changing — though hopefully in a way that doesn't feel quite so on the nose.