Posted on behalf of Mark Schrope
Last July, when the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that it was cutting all funding for Aquarius, the world’s only operating sea-floor laboratory, supporters rallied around the facility, literally and figuratively, to draw attention to its plight. Thanks to these efforts, Aquarius is going to avoid being pulled out of the water. “Things are getting better every day,” says Tom Potts, the facility’s director.
The first step was finding a new operator. The University of North Carolina in Wilmington (UNC-Wilmington), has overseen the lab for years, despite being more than 1,300 kilometres away from Key Largo, Florida, where the coral-encrusted laboratory sits on the sea floor next to a reef. On 31 December, UNC-Wilmington cut ties. Florida International University, in Miami, is now in the process of taking over responsibility. The NOAA has agreed to maintain ownership and liability for the facility through 2013. What happens after that isn’t yet clear, because the complexity and inherent danger of sea-floor living make for significant risks that are expensive to assume.
In hopes of returning to full operation, and to help work out these longer-term issues, supporters have established an Aquarius Foundation, which is well on its way to lining up some significant donors that will hopefully spur further support.
The goal of keeping Aquarius operational this year was helped by the fact that Congress never managed to pass a budget for fiscal year 2013 (which might have zeroed out Aquarius, per the administration’s request). Instead, the country is operating under a continuing resolution, which means funding has continued at 2012 levels through at least March. This has meant US$600,000 to Aquarius Reef Base operations. “That keeps Aquarius maintained in such a manner that we could resume missions if we got additional funds,” says Potts.
Several support positions are gone, but enough of the Aquarius team can now stay on to keep the lab in good repair. If legislators continue their budget bickering, there may be another continuing resolution and more funding.