Erosion study underscores Gay Head Lighthouse peril

A Sourati Engineering Group employee surveyed the Gay Head cliffs in August 2012 as part of the work for a recently completed erosion study. — Photo courtesy of the Sourati En

Erosion cut the distance between the imperiled Gay Head Lighthouse and the edge of the bluff on which its now sits as much as five feet during the year ended in August, according to the results of an erosion study released last week by the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee (SGHLC), which has mounted a multi-million dollar effort to save the iconic Martha’s Vineyard beacon.

“The results of the most recent erosion study conducted on the cliffs surrounding Gay Head Lighthouse demonstrate the unpredictability of the rate of erosion and underscore the need to act quickly to avoid a worst-case scenario,” the committee said in a press release.

Results from two surveys taken by George Sourati of Sourati Engineering Group in Vineyard Haven, one on August 8, 2012 and again August 7, 2013, were compared in the press release. The latest survey revealed that the top of the bluff surrounding the lighthouse had eroded in several areas.

According to the press release, a 25-foot portion southeast of the lighthouse eroded an average of four feet, with the largest loss in that area being five feet; a 15-foot section east of the lighthouse eroded an average of two feet; and a 20-foot section north of the light eroded an average of 18 inches.

Experts brought in to assess the proposed lighthouse move told committee members they will need between a 30- to 40-foot area around the lighthouse to safely move the historic structure. The lighthouse currently sits 46 feet from the edge of the cliff at its closest point.

Len Butler, Gay Head Lighthouse building subcommittee chairman, said that the study shows that the location and rate of erosion is unpredictable and episodic.

“We thought we’d see more erosion on the north side area, but the south side lost between four and five feet in one year,” Mr. Butler said in conversation with the Times. “The erosion is really contingent on the direction and severity of the storms, the wind and the rain. There are lots of factors in addition to the groundwater situation.”

Aquinnah town officials recently met with representatives of the General Services Administration, the Coast Guard and the National Park Service to discuss the pending transfer of ownership of the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard to the town. The town’s formal application to transfer ownership of the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard to the town is due on Feb. 5, 2014.

“The latest studies demonstrate the need to act quickly,” Beverly Wright, SGHLC chairman and Aquinnah selectmen said. “While the winter weather is beyond our control, we can make sure that we are acting as fast as possible to ensure that the lighthouse is saved. Lighthouse supporters can help by opening their pocketbooks and donating.”

The total cost of moving the light is estimated to be around $3 million which the committee expects to meet from a combination of private donations and public funds. Ms. Wright said that more than $500,000 has been donated to date. The committee is requesting contributions from each of the Island towns’ community preservation committees.