Aquarius is an underwater laboratory owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and previously operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). It is located adjacent to the deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at a depth of 63 feet. It is home for research and training in the fields of ocean and air sciences.
In association with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Navy, the mission of Aquarius is five-fold:
• Scientific Research – assess long-term change, study the effectiveness of protected area management and potential restoration techniques, and answer fundamental research questions vital to preserving and protecting one of Florida’s most valuable marine resources.
• Coral Reef and Ocean Observing – providing extended access to a coral reef for repeat surveys and experiments to better understand reef ecosystems, effects of management and restoration efforts, and the impact of climate change.
• Undersea Technology Development – providing a world-class facility to develop and test cutting edge technologies that are needed in ocean observing forecasting and modeling, reef monitoring and restoration, and exploration.
• National Training Facility – providing a unique state-of-the-art diving facility used to train divers for services, forensic and defense purposes, and astronauts for space exploration and technology development.
• Ocean Education and Outreach – providing a window into the undersea world to excite and engage students and the public in learning about the ocean, science, exploration, conservation, and undersea technology.
Aquarius was government funded until federal cuts in research funding went into effect last year. Facing a shut down, Florida International University (FIU) received a grant to continue maintenance and monitoring of the facility for NOAA, taking over from UNCW. The grant will enable FIU to develop a new business model which is expected to include research and educational activities supported by federal, state and local government funding, as well as fees for services from science and engineering teams that use the facility.
The relationship with FIU will allow Aquarius to continue its education and outreach which has provided; (1) hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to assist in research, (2) projects reaching 1 million students across the globe with live broadcasts and specially designed curriculum, (3) television programming on National Geographic, Discovery, ABC News 20/20, NBC Today Show, CNN, and the Learning Channel, (4) public oriented articles in Scientific American, Weekly Reader, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Geotimes, and (3) student writing contests and summer internships.
FIU biology professor, Jim Fourqurean will be overseeing operation of the facility and the existing team at Aquarius will become employees of FIU. Jim Fourqurean has said, “Rapid changes in the environment that supports the beauty and economy of South Florida make the observation post of Aquarius even more important. It gives us a unique vantage point to understand how changing climate, fishing pressure and threats from pollution, oil and gas exploration, and production will impact our coastal environment.”
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