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Science & Technology
Aquarius 2000: Research Under the Sea

Column
For the record
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Shabbir A. Khan
Education
PAGE talks to Bilal Rashid of Iqra University
Information Technology
Interactive TV goes big-time
Science & Technology
Aquarius 2000
AIBIO: The newest tech craze
Interview
Imtiaz Rafi Butt

From Diana J. Choyce
Feb 07 -13, 2000

The opening page to their web site reads: "Welcome to Aquarius, Home of the World's First Underwater Web Site." The internet truly is everywhere! Aquarius is an underwater research project operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. It's funding comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US government. This underwater laboratory resides 63 feet down in The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It's mission is to provide scientists a cost effective means of carrying out undersea research and experiments that require saturation diving.

Aquarius weighs 81 tons and measures 43 feet long. It is anchored by a 116 ton base that keeps it from floating to the surface despite its weight. It's cramped quarters contain six bunks, a shower and toilet, instant hot water, a microwave, trash compactor, a refrigerator and even air conditioning and computers linked back to shore by wireless telemetry. Tethered above on the surface, is a life support buoy that also acts as a communications center. At 33 feet in diameter, it holds compressors and generators needed to supply power and air to the "aquanauts" below. Since most of its missions last only ten days, it has just enough room to get the job done. The cost of operating Aquarius is between $1.2 and $1.5 million a year. This translates to an operating cost estimated at about $10,000 per day for the ten days. In contrast, the same missions run by land would take up to 60 days, would cost about $40,000 less but would also accomplish far less. Aquarius is the only saturation diving habitat in our oceans today.

This project actually has a long history dating back to the 1960's. Nearly 60 other habitat programs have been tried in the last 35 years but the Aquarius is the only one that has remained stable and effective. Along with its predecessor the Hydrolab, nearly 180 missions were conducted in the Bahamas and St. Croix, USVI (80 missions from 1977 to 1985), and over 40 missions have already been completed using Aquarius, first in St. Croix, USVI (13 missions), and currently in the Florida Keys which stands at 33 at the end of 1999. The key to the success of this program is its unique ability to provide scientists with a safe environment in which to conduct their studies. Continuous dives to these depths from the surface are dangerous and take quite a bit of time in decompression. But using the habitat as a base, the divers can remain "under", work faster and be more productive. Most missions last 10-14 days although a mission scheduled for this year may go to 30 days. There is also the state of the art communications system. Using Wave Wireless Networking, Aquarius is linked to the Key Largo onshore base and also the surface support buoy. The connection costs less and is 4 times faster than the conventional T1 line used for most internet connections. This connection allows stable and secure voice, data, and real time video. This was how the Aquarius first produced their underwater home page on the internet. Over two million hits were recorded when the site first went live. Another benefit of the system is the use of remote sensing. Using Aquarius and its buoy as a base for oceanography will increase the value of Aquarius by providing continual information about the ocean, including water temperature, salinity, current speed and direction, tides, wave height and period, and possibly a suite of other parameters including chlorophyll (by fluorescence), dissolved oxygen, and meteorological conditions.

While the research missions carried out over the years have been diverse, they remain focused on how the ocean is surviving man's assault on its marine life and environment. In reality, more research and monies have been spent on space exploration than in our own oceans. For instance, in November of last year a mission was run to study the distribution of ultraviolet, visible, and polarized light throughout the day and across various habitats. The results will help identify the specifics of healthy, marginal, and disturbed reefs. Determining a "baseline" of reference will help to monitor the effects of man made changes to these habitats. It is important to know how all the components of a coral reef work together in order to understand how man is affecting its survival. This in turn will help scientists devise ways of restoring the health of these reefs.

Using its links to the Internet, the center will work next year with the Jason Foundation for Education and NASA as part of an interactive educational program called Going to Extremes. This program will help educate our children about both space and underwater explorations. Among the many research missions that will be run on Aquarius this year, this may be the most important one. Not only do we need to discover how we are affecting our oceans, but we need to pass this information down to our children. They will be the ones to carry out the process that heals what we have already done to this precious resource.