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Drilling Monitoring Wells in Dry Tortugas National Park—Fahrenheit 100, Blue Sky, Blue Water, Crumbling Bricks, and Here Comes Hurricane Charley

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Gene Shinn, Don Hickey, Ann Tihansky, and Dale Griffin
Above: The Tortugas drill team (left to right): Gene Shinn, Don Hickey, Ann Tihansky, and Dale Griffin onboard the research vessel Papa-San.

Drilling a well at Fort Jefferson.
Above: Drilling a well at Fort Jefferson. Gene (right) operates the drill. Don is on the winch.

On August 3, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Florida Integrated Science Centers (FISC) drill team, consisting of geologists Don Hickey and Gene Shinn, microbiologist Dale Griffin, and hydrologist Ann Tihansky, cranked up their hydraulic drill in the moat of a Civil War-era fort. They were drilling in the water-filled moat surrounding historic Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park, some 65 miles west of Key West, FL. The heavy equipment had been transported from Key West to the remote park on the National Park Service's supply boat, the motor vessel Fort Jefferson. The team lived for a week aboard the research vessel Papa-San anchored in the harbor.

The project, funded by the USGS Biological Support in National Parks program, is designed to (1) monitor fecal pollutants and nutrients in the carbonate-island water lens underlying historic Fort Jefferson, (2) determine the island's geologic framework, and (3) determine annual fluctuations in the ephemeral freshwater lens. Pollutants in the ground and surface water are suspected to be influencing surrounding coral reefs.

The first and most grueling step of the 2-year project was the installation of 10 monitoring wells in midsummer heat. Eight wells were core drilled to 18-ft depth and screened. Core drilling allows core samples to be recovered from the hole for later analysis. Screening entails putting a piece of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe down the hole, with a cap at the bottom and fine slits cut through the lower section of the pipe, so that water but not sand can enter the pipe for sampling. A ninth well was cored to 46-ft depth and screened, and the tenth was cored to a depth of 62 ft below sea level. The last well penetrated pre-Holocene coral at 55-ft depth.

As the last well was being drilled, tension was building—Hurricane Charley was on the way. The group headed for Key West to avoid the storm's projected path. Sure enough, the eye of Hurricane Charley passed directly over Fort Jefferson on August 12, causing considerable damage and forcing the park to close. The wells are reported to be undamaged. During the next 2 years, the wells and surface waters in the surrounding anchorage and camping area will be monitored every 3 months for fecal coliforms, nutrients, and salinity. Tough duty, but someone has to do it.

For those who have never heard of Dry Tortugas, it is the site of the largest Civil War-era red-brick fort. The fort was never completed. Rifled cannon made such forts obsolete, and construction was halted. Fort Jefferson has had many functions. It served as a jail. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Mudd, the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth after he shot Abraham Lincoln. The fort also served as a coaling station for ships before the turn of the century and was the last stop for the U.S. battleship Maine before it blew up in Havana Harbor.

Installation of another well in the transect. Carrying core inside a core barrel to the moat wall.
Above Left: Installation of another well in the transect.

Above Right: Carrying core inside a core barrel to the moat wall.

Today the fort is visited daily by two fast catamarans that each disgorge about 100 tourists. A constant stream of pontoon seaplanes arrives from Key West every hour or two. Visitors also arrive by private boat, and campers occupy the small camping area and swimming beach outside the fort. The adjacent island is famous for its sooty terns that land and breed on the island after returning from their annual migration to Africa. In recent months, there has been a new form of landing—about 65 Cuban refugees recently arrived in the middle of the night. It is a place with a rich historical past and an interesting future. An $8-million reconstruction project to replace bricks has just begun. The National Park Service is looking for volunteer bricklayers. Any takers?

Related Sound Waves Stories
Gene Shinn, Chris Reich, and Don Hickey Receive SEPM Award
May 2000

Related Web Sites
Dry Tortugas National Park
National Park Service

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Images and Information About Recent Hurricanes

Drilling Monitoring Wells in the Dry Tortugas

American Samoa's Resilient Coral Reefs

Seepage Samplers in Ashumet Pond

Research Wastewater - A Potential Threat to Florida Keys

Gulf of Mexico Vulnerable to Hurricanes

Outreach USGS Pacific Science Center Open House

Exhibit Designers Interested in Hurricane Research

USGS Hosts Science-Learning Session

Meetings Shore and Beach Preservation Conference

Deep Water Coral Research Workshop

Awards Jim Estes Wins Shoemaker Award

Four Publications Win Shoemaker Awards

Gene Shin Wins Shifting Baselines Contest

Staff & Center News NMSF Regional Office Moving to St. Petersburg, FL

Elena Nilsen Joins Coastal and Marine Geology Team

USGS Vessel To Test Counter-Terrorism Equipment

Dave Reid Wins Triathlon

Publications Southern Sea Otter Video Online

Human Influence on San Francisco Bay Floor

U.S. Coastal Cliffs

October Publications List

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