Aquarius reef base—A living laboratory for ocean acidification (video)

Over the past 15 years, scientists have been documenting increases in acidity in waters of the global ocean. This summer, two groups of scientists will be researching the very local aspect of ocean acidification on coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

Ocean acidification, a phenomenon scientists call “the other carbon problem,” hinders the ability of marine creatures to build shells – and already is presenting challenges to oyster harvesters on the U.S. West Coast. Over many decades, emissions of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere have significantly increased, mainly due to burning of fossil fuels. The oceans have been absorbing some (about 25 percent) of these emissions. While this may help delay atmospheric warming and climate change, scientists have discovered that carbon dioxide in the ocean is making the waters more acidic.

The East Coast missions will use a unique underwater laboratory near Key Largo, Fla., known as Aquarius. The world’s premier underwater laboratory that can accommodate divers for multi-day missions, Aquarius is owned by NOAA through its Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and operated by University of North Carolina Wilmington.

The first of Aquarius’ two ocean acidification missions this summer has just concluded. The 10-day research dive was led by Marc Slattery, Ph.D., of the University of Mississippi. Slattery and his team took advantage of the unique test-bed capabilities of Aquarius to collect information about micro-habitats around the reef and to map acidity levels. They collected samples from sponges and corals that tolerate acidic conditions in order to look at their genetic patterns and ultimately to better understand why some are resistant to acidification while others are harmed by it. Ultimately this research will help coral reef managers predict changes in the reef community structure and function, and potentially develop strategies to mitigate added stress due to increased acidity.

Another study in August will look at local ocean acidification—acidification that is caused by respiration of local reef animals. The principal investigator for the project, Chris Martens, Ph.D., from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains his experiment in this video. The team has developed new technologies to monitor carbon dioxide levels remotely for extended periods. One advancement is an undersea mass spectrometer that measures various gasses in the water and sends the information to a laptop ashore where scientists monitor gas levels in real-time. The team will be looking at differentiating between carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carbon dioxide generated on the seafloor by reef animals, with results expected to help resource managers address ocean acidification issues. NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program is also funding this effort.

Staying Underwater – for Days at a Time

Both of the missions described above require science divers to be on the seafloor for extended times. To understand the complexities of thousands of unique life forms in the ocean and the environments they inhabit, ocean scientists who are divers face a daunting challenge: How to stay underwater long enough to study these complexities effectively?

One way is to bring samples from the ocean to a land-based laboratory by conducting several short dives. This produces results but, with the need to stop and surface repeatedly, is inefficient and costly. Another way is to create an undersea laboratory where scientists can live and work for days or weeks at a time.

Aquarius is located on a sandy patch of seafloor adjacent to deep coral reefs in NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 63 feet below the surface. The lab is well located to study coral reefs, to follow long-term trends in their health, and to observe over time their response to specific threats — including ocean acidification.

Follow these missions and see live broadcasts from Aquarius at the lab’s website

NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research is commemorating 10 years of using state-of-the-art technologies to explore the Earth’s largely unknown ocean in all its dimensions for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at and join us on FacebookTwitter, and our other social media channels.

Keeley Belva, NOAA web site, 28 July 2011. Web site.

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