Underwater observatory to be built off of the Vineyard

By Paisley Dodds, Associated Press, 09/30/98 15:47  

BOSTON (AP) - Scientists will soon be able to measure whether long-term carbon dioxide levels will bolster the so-called greenhouse effect on the ocean.  

The Katama Observatory - being built off the south shore of the Martha's Vineyard - is under construction now, and is scheduled to be active within two years. Unlike some coastal research stations that measure carbon dioxide levels on a temporary basis, Katama will monitor levels 24 hours a day.  

Scientists know that global warming can raise ocean temperatures and affect currents. But it is still unclear how the ocean absorbs atmospheric heat.  

``Does the greenhouse effect cause sea level to rise, or water and atmospheric temperatures to increase? These are the kinds of questions the data we obtain from this observatory may help answer,'' said Wade McGillis, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which will monitor Katama.  

The observatory is made up of a cluster of oceanographic sensors that can measure such things as wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, solar and infrared radiation, and carbon dioxide concentrations.  

In the so-called greenhouse effect, gases released into the atmosphere trap the planet's heat like a greenhouse. Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the primary greenhouse gas, but other culprits are methane and hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs.  

Since before the industrial age, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased from 280 to 360 parts per million and are expected to grow to 550 parts per million by the middle of the next century if unchecked.  

``We realize that to have a long-term understanding of the environment we need long-term monitoring,'' McGillis said.  

The observatory's equipment, placed in an area rich with hard-shell clams, will also be able to show how coastal conditions affect sea creatures.  

It will also be able to give current, or real-time data, on ocean conditions near the station - information that could be useful for sailors, wind surfers and swimmers.  

``Scientists at (Woods Hole) have been involved in coastal and nearshore field studies for decades, ranging from studies of respiratory irritations caused by airborne sea spray generated during outbreaks of red tide to studies of the current flow and wave fields that cause coastal erosion,'' said Woods Hole scientist James Edson.  

``Few of these studies ... have taken advantage of Cape Cod and the Island's long, straight, southward-facing coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.''  

Researchers and students around the world will also have access to the data. People with the World Wide Web can go to a site, scan the data, and watch a live picture of what's happening at the Atlantic outpost.  

A tiny camera at the station monitors ocean happenings at the exact time they occur and transmits pictures. And most of the station will be out of sight.  

``People will only be able to see a small shore station and a 20-foot tall meteorological mast,'' McGillis said.  

Funding for the station has been provided by the National Science Foundation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The total cost is $1.2 million.  


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