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Nearshore Observatory to be Installed off Martha’s Vineyard for Long-term Meteorological and Oceanographic Studies

September 24, 1998

Real-time data on coastal storms, on movement of sand that buries harbor entrances and inlets, and on the impact of winds on shoreline processes will soon be available through a new nearshore observatory planned off the south coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, by scientists and engineers from the nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Following approval of the necessary permits from various town and state agencies, the Katama Observatory will be developed, built and installed by the Institution within the next two years off Edgartown on the island’s south coast. The observatory will collect information 24 hours a day for studies of coastal meteorology, air-sea interaction, sediment transport, benthic biological processes, and gas transfer. The data will be shared in real-time with local officials, students, other scientists, and the public through the Internet. The project is a collaboration of scientists and engineers at the Institution and is headed by Scientists James Edson and Wade McGillis of WHOI’s Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department. Other principal investigators are Christopher von Alt, principal engineer, and Cheryl Ann Butman and John Trowbridge, both scientists. Funding for the project, scheduled to start in September 1998, has been provided by the National Science Foundation and cost-shared by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Total cost is $1.2 million, with 30 percent provided by WHOI.

The observatory will be barely visible to the public, since much of the hardware will be offshore and all cables will be underground. It will consist of a small shore station, a 20-foot tall meteorological mast with atmospheric sensors, and two nodes for oceanic sensors located on the seafloor in approximately 35 and 50 feet of water, respectively. The shore station will be located above the highest high-tide mark at the Katama Air Park in Edgartown near the hanger facilities. The shore station will be connected to the existing local power lines and will also have a backup generator that will automatically engage during power failures, such as during hurricanes and Nor’easters. The instrumented mast will be erected close to shore to provide a continuous stream of atmospheric data, such as wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity, solar and infrared radiation, and carbon dioxide concentrations. The meteorological mast will look much like a heavy duty flag pole and is expected to be placed near the Katama Lifeguard House. It will be the first extensively instrumented nearshore meteorological station in the region.

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. The subsurface oceanic sensors will be connected to shore via the seafloor nodes to this cable that will be permanently buried under the seafloor. The cable will be installed through a technique called directional drilling and will run underground from the shore station, under the beach and out to sea to the nodes there so that no part of the cable is visible. “The cable will serve as a coastal “extension cord” to which a variety of scientific instruments could be connected for extended deployments,” says Christopher von Alt, whose laboratory will design, build and install the observatory.

Data from all sensors will be transmitted via the cable from the nodes to a computer in the shore station, where it will be logged continuously and made available both to the scientists, engineers and the public through Internet connections. Oceanographic measurements from the nodes will include a variety of measurements on waves and their direction onshore, current speed and direction, seawater temperature and salinity, light transmission, fluorescence, and dissolved oxygen, which impacts biological life.

“As ocean science continues to evolve from an exploratory endeavor, requiring occasional globally-distributed snapshots of measurements and observations, to a more focused, process-oriented activity requiring long-term, multi-parameter measurement strategies, the ability to make observations of ocean processes over periods of years is becoming increasingly important,” said H. Lawrence Clark, Director of the Oceanographic Technology and Interdisciplinary Coordination Program at the National Science Foundation.

“Scientists at WHOI 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,” notes WHOI’s James Edson. “Few of these studies, however, have taken advantage of Cape Cod and the Islands long, straight, southward-facing coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.”

“We are very interested in long-term monitoring of carbon dioxide dynamics in our atmosphere and coastal ocean,” adds Wade McGillis. “Many measurements have been made of carbon dioxide in the ocean, but few measure it continually over a long period of time. For example, we need to understand the carbon dioxide flux, the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of and going into the ocean. This observatory will measure that flux as well as many physical processes that may be caused by the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’. 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.” The information collected at the Katama Observatory will be used directly in ongoing scientific investigations at WHOI. Data from the observatory, accessible in real time on the World Wide Web, will also be available for nearshore studies supported under other research grants from the National Science Foundation and other agencies interested in understanding what happens along the coastline.

An interactive web site displaying real-time data from the observatory will be available to local schools and to universities to enhance the education of grade school through high school children, college students, and the public concerning processes in the nearshore region.

“Local officials will be able to use information from the Observatory to develop coastal management policies, while windsurfers and sailors might be interested in the wind and wave data for recreational reasons.” Edson says. “Students on the island, and elsewhere, will be able to participate in a real-time experiment and observe what is happening literally in their own backyard.”

The Katama Observatory will join two other coastal facilities along the east coast of the United States, an Army Corps of Engineers’ Field Research Facility at Duck, North Carolina, and the Long-term Ecosystem Observatory in 15 meters of water (LEO-15) at Tuckerton, New Jersey, near Atlantic City. Institution engineers designed, built and installed the LEO-15 observatory in 1996 and continue to receive real-time data 24 hours a day from that site. The same team, members of the WHOI Oceanographic Systems Laboratory, will design, build and install the Katama Observatory. Other scientists involved in the Martha’s Vineyard project have worked at the Duck, NC, station.

“The three facilities provide a unique network on the East Coast of the United States from which we can gain valuable measurements on processes that are not well understood,” says WHOI Director Robert Gagosian. “For example, hurricanes in the summer and fall and coastal storms common to the Northeast during the winter seasons can now be tracked as they develop and move up the East Coast and then out to sea. The data we collect at Katama will complement research conducted at the other stations along the eastern seaboard. It will, however, be unique in that the other stations face east, while this observatory will face south and will experience long periods of onshore winds that have traveled over unlimited stretches of ocean.”

“We are all very excited about the information we will obtain from this new observatory,” Jim Edson notes. “Clearly the pressures on the coastal environment are mounting as more and more people move near the coast. The Katama Observatory will enable us to gain a new perspective on the coastal ocean.”