The Closure Of Aquarius Reef Base And America's Scientific Ambitions

The looming closure of America's last underwater base has caused too little scandal and not enough discussion of the future of scientific exploration.
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Were the U.S. to pull out of the International Space Station, a tidal wave of tweets and headlines would declare the end of an era and decry the scaling back of our national ambition, but little fuss has been made over the potential closure of the world's only remaining underwater research center. Though the history of manned oceanic exploration has paralleled the space race since the early 1960s, when we arrived on the moon and built a lab under the Pacific, the potential scrapping of Florida's Aquarius Reef Base has prompted no referendum on the future of science in America.

Because the base has historically been as low profile as it has been scientifically invaluable, its supporters are now hoping that a final, highly-publicized mission and the help of some Hollywood stars might save the scientific outpost. Still, the future appears bleak. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which owns the habitat, wishes to terminate its National Undersea Research Program. Aquarius is a major component of NURP, though official statements rarely mention it.

"While we are grateful for the advances that NURP science has contributed, the current fiscal climate has required NOAA and all agencies to make some very tough budgetary choices," says Fred Gorell, a NOAA spokesman. "As such, the fiscal year 2013 budget request proposes to terminate NURP funding."

Tough budgetary choices are a reality of modern U.S. politics, but the termination of NURP, and with it, Aquarius, adds up to an annual savings of no more than $4 million a year. The Aquarius base typically gets by on about $2.5 million a year, a drop in the fiscal bucket compared to $450 million per space shuttle mission or the $1.4 million the agency drops on a defunct moon program daily thanks to vague legal language.

Ironically, Aquarius's low cost has likely contributed to its low profile. The program can be cut precisely because ordinary citizens haven't heard of it because it isn't expensive enough to be worth cutting. The lab is a perfect example of practical spending.

Operational since the late 1980s and situated 60 feet below the surface a few miles south of the Florida Keys, Aquarius has quietly given scientists prolonged access to the seabed, a unique opportunity to observer the oceanic ecosystem consistently and over time.

"Being able to study the animals and plants in their home using an underwater habitat gives me the gift of time," says Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence known as "Her Deepness" thanks to a long and prosperous career under the waves. "Time to see what these magnificent life forms are actually doing on the reef; time to notice the small and seemingly insignificant things that later turn out to be a sea secret. Every time I live underwater I come back with new insights and a hundred new questions."

The many marine researchers who have taken part in more than 120 Aquarius missions over the years often say the same thing -- a version of "to really know the sea, you have to live and work in the sea." Scientists have several hundred published papers in top-notch journals to show for their time on the bottom spent studying conditions that relate both to life on the reef itself and to larger issues, like ocean acidification and the overall health of the oceans, which is of course inextricably linked to the health of the earth.

A coral reef like this one is a good place for a researcher to be stationed, says Mark Patterson, a professor of marine science at the College of William & Mary who was in on selecting the Aquarius site, a sandy patch in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

"Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems in the ocean and may also have the highest biodiversity of perhaps any habitat on the planet, certainly equal to the rainforest if not exceeding it," says Patterson, who will join Earle on an eight-day mission set to begin July 14. The researchers will be focusing on the biology of corals and sponges on the reef, where, among other things, changes related to global warming have made sponges more dominant than corals.

They will also be waving for the cameras.

Aquarius operators hope to attract public attention by bringing Dr. Earle along for the rinse. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose congressional district includes the Florida Keys, will be taking the dip as well, encouraging NOAA to fund the project with a sliver of its $5 billion budget.

Just in case this last dip effort doesn't work, supporters have hurriedly set up a nonprofit Aquarius Foundation and begun raising money to keep the base in business, says Tom Potts, the base's director. The Foundation's board already boasts some prominent members, including renowned underwater photographer Stephen Frink, former Wall Street financier Audra Santoro and Joseph Pawlik, a professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. But these names, while notable, are not nearly so well known as those Potts hopes to attract.

The producer Jon Landau, whose credits include "Avatar" and "Titanic," was recently invited to pay a visit to Aquarius. After resurfacing, he suggested that his frequent collaborator James Cameron, follow his lead. Though Cameron, an avid underwater explorer himself, has not made a pilgrimage yet, his presence could draw additional attention to base's tenuous position as two established nonprofit organizations, the Divers Alert Network and One World One Ocean, funnel donations to the foundation.

Negotiations are now under way to keep money flowing from NOAA long enough to ease a potential public to private transition for the dozen or so staff and contract workers who run the base out of a pair of converted canal-front houses in Key Largo.

The Aquarius habitat itself, encrusted with sea life after years on the bottom, is just over forty feet long and tank-like in appearance, a pressurized, climate-controlled underwater RV. It can hold up to six occupants who can don diving gear and swim into the surrounding water at any time of day or night. They come and go through a door-sized hatch in the floor that remains open. The elevated air pressure inside the habitat matches the water pressure outside so the water stops at the doorstep, forming a kind of liquid looking glass. The aquanauts can spend hours at a time outside the habitat, far longer than the mere minutes they'd have if making ordinary dives from the surface, a historic breakthrough attributable to diving methods developed in the 1960s.

Navy divers have trained at Aquarius, and just last month NASA astronauts were back for another in an ongoing series of training missions. It turns out that living and working on the sea floor is about the closest the astronauts can get on earth to the experience of living and working, say, on an asteroid -- weightless, isolated, and subject to all manner of unexpected occurrences in a hostile environment. This Navy and NASA use has also provided a welcome source of revenue for Aquarius -- the proverbial win-win.

Just a half-century ago, as the nation set its sights on the moon, the concept of equipping free-swimming divers to work out of a sea-floor base sounded like science fiction. No one had ever done such a thing and the very notion went against long-established diving limits, both in terms of depth and duration. Then the U.S. Navy let a few eager scientists and divers loose and - reluctantly at first - the Navy put some money into Sealab, a series of experimental undersea habitats.

While probes, robotic devices and sensors may be cheaper or better suited to some types of undersea monitoring and exploration - just as they are in the harsh, distant destinations of outer space -- Sealab became a dramatic demonstration of how extended stays by human divers in a properly outfitted undersea shelter were indeed possible, and that such manned missions could have distinct advantages for scientific, military or industrial purposes.

A smattering of several dozen habitats around the world followed the example of Sealab, including an American-led project called Tektite, a successful venture of the early 1970s in which none other than Sylvia Earle led an all-female aquanaut team. A little later a privately instigated research habitat called La Chalupa ran missions for a few years. In the 1980s it was converted it into Jules' Undersea Lodge, the world's only underwater hotel, which is in a Key Largo lagoon, not far from Aquarius headquarters.

If Aquarius, the last of the undersea habitats, is able to survive, there's probably a better chance there might someday be others, in other places, as once envisioned.

Some forward-looking American politicians even see this as a time to expand mankind's underwater presence instead of retreating to the surface.

"I would think it would ideal to have a vessel like this, say, along the Great Barrier Reef, in the Coral Triangle, maybe somewhere in the South Pacific, in northern latitudes as well," says former congressman Brian Baird, who served on the House Committee on Science and Technology and made several dives to Aquarius during his six terms. "Station them around the world in key locations and combine that data and build the expertise."

Following the example of America's original aquanauts, would mean expanding our reach into the semi-final frontier. Without Aquarius, it'll be harder to get back to that future.

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