It is already being heralded as possibly the most sophisticated coastal and ocean observatory on the East Coast. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution unveiled plans this week to construct a $1.2 million facility at South Beach at Katama that will provide scientists with 24-hour monitoring of the ocean and its interaction with the coast. 
        Members of the Edgartown conservation commission and park commission have already given favorable, though not formal, support to the project. There will be underwater and above-water measuring devices extending into the ocean. Video camera equipment atop a 20-foot mast, along with weather measuring equipment, will look out over the water. The mast will stand next to the town-owned old Donnelly house, amid the dunes. 
        While formal permits need to be filed and approved by the town and state, the lead scientist heading the project said construction of the facility could begin after Labor Day 1999. 
        "The observatory will collect information 24 hours a day for studies of coastal meteorology, air-sea interaction, sediment transport, benthic biological process and gas transfer," said Shelley Lauzon, a spokesman for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). "This project is a collaboration of scientists and engineers at the institution and is headed by scientists James Edson and Wade R. McGillis. Scientists from the National Science Foundation are participants. 
        "The observatory will be barely visible to the public since much of the hardware will be offshore and all cables will be underground," said the spokesman. 
        Mr. McGillis, 33, said the idea for the facility began two years ago. Martha's Vineyard has always been an ideal place for the world-recognized oceanographic organization to do various projects. In the past, the Edgartown Harbor Association hired WHOI scientists to study the water quality of Edgartown inner harbor. The institution's scientists have been involved in looking at Sengekontacket, Edgartown Great Pond and Squibnocket Pond. This is the first time Woods Hole scientists will turn their instruments from the Island toward the open ocean. 
        "Woods Hole doesn't have the southern exposure to the ocean you do on the Vineyard," Mr. McGillis said. "You have the wind, you have the beach erosion. Nantucket is too far away. If there is a problem with the equipment, I want my students to be able to take the ferry over to the Vineyard and drive to the beach," he said. 
        "Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a neighbor to Martha's Vineyard. The coastline is really dynamic. This is a unique spot, facing southward. That is where you get the brunt of ocean storms," Mr. McGillis said. Scientists also want to observe sea water temperature and levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean, possible indicators of global warming. "We want to study the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere," he said. 
        There are only two other facilities on the East Coast that come close to what is being designed for the Vineyard. One is located in New Jersey and the other is in North Carolina. There are offshore buoys that continuously report weather and sea conditions. The proposed observatory will include live video imagery and data that will be easily accessible to anyone with a computer connected to the Internet. Among the project goals, he said: "I want to capture a hurricane." There is still much to be learned about the ocean and its interaction with the shoreline, he said, and scientists are especially interested in observing a northeaster. 
        The equipment will be underground and not attached to the Donnelly house, because Mr. McGillis observed that in past storms, waves have moved the old house. 
        A statement by WHOI said: "The shore station, meteorological mast, and oceanic nodes will be connected together with underground cable that will be placed beneath the airfield runway, under Herring Creek, Atlantic Drive, the dunes and South Beach. . . . Data from all sensors will be transmitted via the cable from the nodes to a computer on the shore station [located at the Katama Airfield], where it will be logged continuously." 
        Jane M. Varkonda, Edgartown conservation agent and a member of the town park commission, said the town permitting departments are looking favorably at the project, although no formal application process has yet begun. "The park commission has approved, though we need more details," she said. "The conservation commission has looked at it. They [WHOI] do have to go through a formal permit process." 
        The state Department of Environmental Management owns South Beach and will need to review the project too. Mrs. Varkonda said environmental permits will be required because the scientists want to bury wiring. She said the institution also needs approvals from the Katama Airfield commission and The Nature Conservancy, which jointly manage the land. 
        Mr. McGillis said he envisions the Island elementary schools being invited to participate in the scientific work of the station. "We are anxious to work with the community to see this project go through," he said. 

Copyright © 1998 Vineyard Gazette
P.O. Box 66, Edgartown, Mass. 02539