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VIMS professor leads mission to underwater research station

  • Underwater research
    Underwater research  Mark Patterson uses SCUBA to check a coral-reef experiment on the seafloor near the Aquarius underwater laboratory during a previous mission.  Courtesy photo
  • Underwater research
    Underwater research  The Aquarius Undersea Laboratory is owned by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  Photo courtesy of NOAA
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Professor Mark Patterson of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, will next week team with National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle on what might be the last expedition to NOAA’s Aquarius Undersea Laboratory, the world’s only underwater research station.

Their weeklong mission is a celebration of 50 years of human habitation of the ocean floor. Human “aquanauts” have been living on the seafloor for purposes of science, innovation, and exploration since Jacques Cousteau launched the Conshelf I project in 1962.

Aquarius—aka America's Inner Space Station—is located 8 miles off Key Largo, Florida, 60 feet below the surface of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Since its deployment at the site in 1993, the school-bus-sized lab has supported more than 115 missions, which have generated upwards of 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications and provided knowledge and long-term data to help guide the management and conservation of coral reefs in the U.S. and around the world. The lab is owned by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

During the upcoming mission, scheduled for July 15-21, Patterson and Earle will focus their research on the nearby coral reefs. To share the excitement and inspiration of living beneath the sea, the mission will be available worldwide via a Ustream video feed ( generated by the Aquarius Reef Base, the onshore command center for the undersea habitat.

Broadcasts from the mission will also be available to schools, science camps, aquariums, and other educational facilities, including the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond and teams of “Research Experience for Undergraduate” students at VIMS, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

Patterson and Earle are also scheduled for underwater interviews with reporters from ABC’s Nightline and NPR’s Science Friday, among other media outlets. One World One Ocean, a project of IMAX pioneer MacGillivray Freeman Films, will host social-media outreach during the mission at

A special video feed on Thursday, July 12th will allow previous Aquarius aquanauts attending the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia, to share their Aquarius research highlights with the public and the current Aquarius team. NOAA Chief Jane Lubchenco primed the pump for Thursday’s live feed during her keynote address to the ICRS attendees, calling ocean acidification the "osteoporosis of the sea" and noting that it has emerged as one of the biggest threats to coral-reef ecosystems and the people that depend on them for food and jobs.

Patterson, head of the Autonomous Systems Laboratory at VIMS, has a long history of living and working underwater. He introduced the use of computer technology to NOAA’s Hydrolab—the predecessor of Aquarius—in 1984, and has participated in 7 previous Aquarius missions. With support from the National Science Foundation and NOAA, he continues to develop and deploy advanced instrumentation and robotic submarines to study how corals cope with environmental stress from global warming and ocean acidification.

Earle—an internationally renowned oceanographer and Time magazine’s inaugural “Hero for the Planet” in 1998—is a pioneer in the use of advanced technology for human exploration of the seas. She has led more than 60 expeditions worldwide involving more than 7,000 hours underwater in connection with her research—including the first visit by a team of women to an undersea habitat during the Tektite mission of 1970.

The continued operation of Aquarius is under serious question due to an Obama Administration plan to eliminate the $4 million National Undersea Research Program (NURP) under which the lab and several other undersea research programs operate. In April, a U.S. Senate spending panel threw further doubt on the future of Aquarius when it proposed to fold NURP into NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. The fate of Aquarius within these budget-cutting and reorganization proposals remains unclear.

Saul Rosser, Operations Director of the Aquarius Reef Base, says “There’s been some budgetary questions within Congress related to Aquarius, which definitely has us concerned. This mission is an opportunity to engage people with the habitat and understand the benefits it brings.”

Otto Rutten, Associate Director of the Aquarius Reef Base, says “If the Aquarius program is ever shut down, what’s going to be lost is a national asset, losing the world’s only underwater laboratory. Fifty plus years of a legacy, and it’s not easy to restart that if it were ever lost.”

Patterson says the habitat’s value lies in its facilitation of underwater research. "Aquarius has allowed me to do experiments that can't be done in the lab,” he says, “and makes underwater research much easier than when diving from the surface.” By living in Aquarius, the scientists’ body tissues “saturate” with nitrogen gas, allowing them to spend much longer on each SCUBA dive than a surface-based diver.

Thomas Potts, Aquarius Reef Base director, says “The real benefit of Aquarius—science wise—is that you get about a 9-fold increase in productivity. You can spend 9 hours per day diving, at about 65 feet, where you’d be lucky to spend an hour a day diving from the surface. It gives you the opportunity to live on the bottom and actually concentrate on your research.

"Being able to study the animals and plants in their home using an underwater habitat gives me the gift of time," adds Earle. "Time to see what these magnificent life forms are actually doing on the reef, time to notice the small and seemingly insignificant 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."

Joining Patterson and Earle on the expedition is DJ Roller, a fellow aquanaut, underwater explorer, and award-winning filmmaker who uses his custom-designed 3-D underwater digital camera system to capture images in resolutions high enough for 5-story-tall IMAX screens. Roller and his production team will capture an entirely new view of science and living underwater.

Roller says, "Living underwater and exploring the ocean as an aquanaut is a life- changing experience that has given me a whole new perspective. The 3-D camera system creates a window into another world and has scientific merit as the determination of scale and distance isn’t possible from 2D cameras."

During the upcoming mission, the aquanauts will illustrate the advantages of living and working on the seafloor by experiments on different corals and algae that cannot be conducted diving from a boat, or from a shore-based lab.

“We’ll use sophisticated instruments to measure the health of coral colonies on the nearby reef,” says Patterson. “I’ll be conducting measurements on coral and sponge respiration and photosynthesis using a PAM fluorometer and a micro-electrode system. Our results will help predict how corals will cope, or not, as the oceans change."

Rounding out the Aquarius dive team is M. Dale Stokes—an internationally known marine scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a veteran of 4 previous saturation science missions at Aquarius. Stokes is an expert in underwater instrumentation, coral reef biology, and the physical and chemical oceanography of reefs. He will be collaborating with Patterson on planned experiments on corals and sponges.