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Coastal Weather Station Demolished Before It Could Fall Into The Ocean

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For 50 years, the National Weather Service has taken atmospheric readings twice a day from an outpost on Cape Cod. But the very storms it helps to predict have eroded the bluff where the facility sits, and this week, crews started to tear it down. Eve Zuckoff from member station WCAI reports.

EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: On a sunny day at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, meteorologist Andy Nash marvels and worries about what he sees.

ANDY NASH: There's a really nice view of the ocean right now. It's pretty. You can see sandbars off in the distance. Six, eight months ago, you couldn't see that water because there was another 50 to 80 feet of bluff and trees. And that is all gone now, and hence the need to not be here anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

ZUCKOFF: Nash, who's in charge of the National Weather Service in Boston, watches as workers begin dismantling the squat gray-shingled building. Before it was decommissioned this spring, it was one of just 92 sites across the country where government meteorologists launch weather balloons to collect data about the climate and atmosphere. But since November, the bluff has eroded at an average rate of a foot and a half every week. It's a cruel irony. In this place where scientists study Mother Nature, she's telling them to leave.

EILEEN MCGOURTY: It's just an amazing thing to see and to have it happen so fast.

ZUCKOFF: That's Eileen McGourty, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who's stationed at the refuge.

MCGOURTY: You could see, like, a tree on the bank edge, and you're like, OK, that tree is not going to be there for very long. And then you come after a storm or something, and all the dirt come down with it, and you can just smell the dirt and the air. And the tree actually slides down the bluff, kind of, like, surfs its way down.

ZUCKOFF: Scientists traced the crisis back to 2017, when an April Fool's Day storm cut a channel through one of the sandbars that acts as a barrier beach.

MARK BORRELLI: Unfortunately, that flow that's going through there is just ripping that sand away from the area.

ZUCKOFF: Mark Borrelli, a coastal geologist at the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod, says the problem 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.

BORRELLI: In the 20th century, we've had about a foot of sea level rise. 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, right? You're not going to see a foot every decade, but it's going to go up. It's going to have that exponential curve. So when it starts to happen - and it's already starting a little bit - it's going to get faster.

ZUCKOFF: With that threat looming, the weather station isn't the only endangered structure at the refuge. Soon, McGourty says, a boatyard, shed and dormitory for seasonal fish and wildlife workers will be in harm's way, too.

MCGOURTY: And 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.

ZUCKOFF: Beyond the weather station and the refuge, the impacts of rapid erosion are causing fears for the wider community, where dozens of homes sit above the same shifting sands. The National Weather Service is already looking for a new location to launch its balloons, ideally somewhere that won't be at risk of falling into the ocean anytime soon.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Zuckoff in Chatham, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC DEMARCO SONG, "MY KIND OF WOMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.