Aquarius Mission First to Study Ocean Acidification From the Surface to the Seafloor on Florida Coral Reef

Scientists equipped with new technology will conduct the first “saturation” mission to study the effect of ocean acidification on coral reef ecosystems. Ocean acidification describes the changing chemistry of water that occurs as excess carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed from the atmosphere. The 10-day mission begins today.
“Most of the work on the effect of ocean acidification on corals and other calcifying organisms has been done in the laboratory,” said Chris Martens, the William B. Aycock Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. “This will be the first time we will be able to see how these impacts change daily and even by the minute as we continuously monitor changes in water chemistry from the surface to the seafloor using novel new instrumentation.”
The team of four scientists and two technicians will live and work aboard the Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only underwater laboratory, anchored on a sand patch 60 feet undersea within a coral reef in the Florida Keys. Aquarius is owned by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Aquarius enables divers to “saturate,” meaning they stay undersea and have extended bottom time for diving and research by going through 17 hours of decompression at the end of a mission instead of going to the surface each day.
“The laboratory work gives us a good idea of what happens to corals and other marine organisms that live in water with extra carbon dioxide,” said Niels Lindquist, professor of marine sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill. “But there are likely to be many environmental, biological, and ecological impacts that we can only observe by being right in the water near the seafloor.”

The team will use advanced new instruments and technologies such as prototype underwater mass spectrometers and pH sensors that will provide state-of-the-art measurements of water chemistry to help determine the roles that corals, sponges, and other marine organisms play. The mission will pioneer technologies for highly precise monitoring of acidification in situ over extended periods that may eventually be applied in reef ecosystems around the world.
Previous work by NOAA scientists and others both in the laboratory and in the field, shows that ocean acidification affects organisms with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons, such as corals, and affects their ability to thrive as the colonies that make up today’s coral reefs. The changing ocean chemistry may also impact other biological processes in marine life and make the reef structure, so vital to the ecosystem, less resilient.
Ellen Prager, chief scientist at the Aquarius Reef Base, notes that NOAA’s Aquarius undersea lab is ideally suited for ocean acidification studies and testing of the advanced technologies.
“I hope this will be the start of a long-term research emphasis on in situ study of ocean acidification impacts on the coral reef ecosystem,” Prager said.
This month’s mission is the result of collaboration between academic, federal, industry, and private partners, including NOAA, UNCW, UNC-Chapel Hill, U-South Florida, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Monitor Instruments Company, LLC; SRI International and Ocean Optics, Inc. Funding for the project was provided by a foundation grant to UNCW in combination with NOAA’s grant to UNCW for Aquarius operations and in-kind donations.
NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.

NOAA News, 14 October 2008. Article.

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