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News Clips 01/09/2013
Florida university to take over operations of undersea lab Aquarius
Source: Star News Online, 01/08/13
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By Ashley Withers
A lack of federal support and local funding has forced the University of North Carolina Wilmington to stop operations at Aquarius, the world's only permanent undersea laboratory – a loss that will take away a key component of the school's marine science program, a school official said.
"Aquarius is unique. It's the only asset like this in the world," Aquarius director Tom Potts said of the facility in the Florida Keys. "UNCW does lose a little of what makes it unique by losing this program."
But the program is not completely lost. It will soon be operated by Miami-based Florida International University.
FIU President Mark Rosenberg discussed the facility in his spring "Welcome Back" address to students on Jan. 2.
"FIU students and faculty go to great depths for their research. Soon, that will be truer than ever," he wrote. "Aligned with our strategic commitment to environmental studies, we have submitted a proposal to assume operations of the Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only operational underwater research center."
UNCW took over Aquarius operations in 1991, but decided not to pursue renewing the agreement on Dec. 31, 2012, after a long struggle to find enough funding.
Bob Wicklund, UNCW's director of federal programs, has worked with members of Congress for years to try to maintain funding for the undersea lab.
"Without federal funding, the sustainability of federal funding, that's going to be a tough deal – not only operating it, but getting good science out of it," he said.
Aquarius sits in about 60 feet of water about four miles from shore off Key Largo. With about 400 square feet of living and research space, it allows scientists to live and work underwater 24 hours a day for one or two week missions.
UNCW operated the lab for more than 20 years – "a long time for a research project to continue on," Wicklund said. "From the standpoint of what Aquarius has done, it has added a real value of what's happening to the coral reefs," he said. "Now it's being passed on to another university. We just hope they can make it work and make it continue."
The facility costs about $1.5 million a year for basic operations, but the cost jumps to about $3 million when funding research projects, according to Potts.
The federal budget didn't include money for Aquarius this year, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) consolidated programs in its ocean exploration program, eliminating the undersea research program that included Aquarius.
UNCW officials were set to pull the center from its research space in the Florida Keys this year, but FIU stepped in.
"FIU has a real commitment to marine science and Aquarius fits nicely in their expansion," Potts said. "We're pretty excited about the opportunity. FIU has a different business model and substantial private donors who are committed to the project."
UNCW had 12 full-time employees working on the project, but only five of these employees, including Potts, have been retained by FIU.
Joseph Pawlik, a UNCW marine biologist and long-term researcher at Aquarius, said he is sad to see UNCW lose the facility, but is pleased that Aquarius will remain open.
"At a time when everyone is talking about global climate change and how oceans are being impacted by climate change, this is one of the few places that has long-term data on how animals and plants are being impacted by this phenomenon," Pawlik said. "To lose that at such a critical time would be a particularly big loss, so now we're just rooting for FIU."
Pawlik believes FIU will not face the same funding challenges that UNCW did.
"UNCW always had a problem getting money from the legislators because the North Carolina delegation didn't understand why they should support a facility off the coast of Florida," he said. "We didn't have the geographical match that FIU will have. I hope that streamlines the process for them."
FIU has received verbal approval on their proposal to take over the facility. Potts said the school expects to receive written confirmation this week.