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Ossabaw: Treasure island
Groundbreaking real-time, long-distance internet monitoring program set for Ossabaw Island
Driftwood on an Ossabaw beach

About ten miles south of Savannah lies the living laboratory of Ossabaw Island. Administered by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Ossabaw Island Foundation, it is protected from development and now serves as an educational and research platform.

The newest wrinkle to Ossabaw’s outreach is made possible by a $200,000 grant from Georgia Power and the Georgia Research Alliance. With that money, the Foundation and our own Skidaway Institute of Oceanography will build a network of sensors so that educators and scientists can monitor changes in Ossabaw’s environment without having to get in a boat.

“Ossabaw Island is a heritage preserve, which means it has limited access,” explains Herb Windom, professor emeritus at the Skidaway Institute and one of the organizers of the plan. “One of the things the state wanted to do, and get the Ossabaw Island Foundation involved in, is to make it available — within the framework of a heritage trust — to the citizens of Georgia for education and research. To make that experience more meaningful, we started talking about virtual access.”

According to Paul Pressly, director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation’s education programs, the goal of the project is two-fold.

“We want the information coming from the sensors, video cameras and other monitors to go into every classroom in the state of Georgia,” he says. “Secondly, we want researchers to be able to place sensors that serve their research purposes on the island, whether monitoring water quality, tarpon activity in the creeks or other forms of animal life.”

The Ossabaw monitoring program will likely be the first one like it in the country.

“Most of the observing systems that are out there are local,” says Windom. “But nowhere have I seen one for a barrier island. It’s a whole different concept, using terrestrial and aquatic systems side by side.”

The concept was born in 2002 during a series of stakeholder workshops.

“We said, look, it’s practical with technology right now to put sensors and cameras out there so that people can see what’s going on there environmentally from their desk,” Windom recalls.

So why do you need real-time access? Windom recounts a telling episode which explains the reason:

“We had a well out on the beach, and it was in between two palm trees. We lost it when the sand covered it, so we decided to come back a couple of weeks later with some shovels and dig it out,” he remembers.

“We did, but one of the palm trees was gone so we couldn’t find the well. We came back a couple of weeks after that and both palm trees were gone,” Windom says.

“It’s very dynamic. We know what’s going on, but we don’t see what’s happening in between. When there’s a hurricane or a big stormfront you’re not going to have people out there seeing what’s going on,” he says.

“Some of the most interesting things in nature happen during unique circumstances. One big storm changes more of the coastline than all weather events throughout the rest of the year.”

Windom says with real-time video and sensors, “There’s real science to be gained from that, to understand barrier islands and how man influences what’s going on there.”

The idea is to have a website for the public with visuals and brief data, with a second, more comprehensive online component — perhaps available on a subscription basis — for researchers and scientists.

“With Armstrong Atlantic, State University, we’ll be working on products for education, working through a website,” Windom says. “Teachers and students can come in and say, ‘How does groundwater relate to rainfall?’ And it will start showing these relationships and plotting things together, and showing things in a way that starts linking cause and effect.”

With a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, AASU professor Ashraf Saad has developed OssaBest, a three-year project to better prepare local students and teachers entering information technology careers.

The next step comes in April, when workers begin the step-by-step process of expanding the island’s wireless connectivity from the north side on down, an effort made possible by funding from Georgia Power.

Already in place are monitoring wells on the island to monitor ground water, made possible by The Alliance for Coastal Technology (ACT), a consortium of research laboratories, including Skidway Institute. Last year, also with funding from Georgia Power, a weather station was set up, which can be monitored at

After wireless connectivity has been established, three water quality sensors will be established. Additional sensors will be deployed in wells to monitor groundwater levels, temperature and salinity. Video cameras will follow, on the beach and other locations on the island.

“When the National Science Foundation, Georgia Power and the Georgia Research Alliance made grants this fall to create an observatory on Ossabaw Island, we knew we had crossed a magical threshold,” says Pressly. “We now have the resources to put together a path-breaking program for research and education that respects the island’s undisturbed nature.”

Georgia’s barrier islands are perhaps the state’s greatest — and least known — natural treasures.

“One of the very important things barrier islands provide is support for a very large sports fishery,” Herb Windom explains.

Additionally, barrier islands provide protection from hurricanes. “It would take an awfully large hurricane to sustain a storm surge like we saw with Katrina, because it gets dampened coming across these barrier islands and saltmarshes,” says Windom.

But most of all, barrier islands are wholly irreplaceable natural habitats.

“We have to feed our spirit, and part of feeding our spirit is an environment that functions and is natural. There are habitats that are unique on barrier islands that need to be maintained undisturbed,” says Windom.

“Go down to Florida and up to South Carolina and see what development really is.”

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• Native American artifacts from as far back as 4,000 years ago have been found on Ossabaw.

• In 1760 Ossabaw was one of several islands sold to Mary Musgrove, Oglethorpe’s half-Indian interpreter, for her services. For the next century Ossabaw was home to several rice and indigo plantations.

• On gaining their freedom, Ossabaw Island’s slaves established the community of Pin Point, home of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

• In 1978, the West family, which owned the island at the time, sold Ossabaw to the state with the understanding it would never be developed, and would be used for education and research. It was established as Georgia’s first heritage trust.