01/09/2013 10:40 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Aquarius Reef Base May Be Saved By Florida International University

The world's coolest laboratory may be saved after all.

Florida International University president Mark B. Rosenberg announced in a spring "welcome back" letter that the school has submitted a proposal to assume operations of imperiled NOAA-owned Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only operational underwater research laboratory.

Aquarius, which nestles 60 feet under the warm water of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, had previously been managed by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. But federal budget cuts, which claimed the lab's entire $3 million allotment, devastated the lab's "aquanauts" and forced funding-strapped UNCW to pass in December on renewing the operational agreement it has held since 1991.

At FIU's Miami campus, just hours away from the lab, Rosenberg plugged the undersea lab's benefit in ocean and reef conservation:

FIU students and faculty go to great depths for their research. Soon, that will be truer than ever...This unique facility offers unparalleled research opportunities to study coral reefs and the ocean; test state-of-the art undersea technology; train astronauts and specialized divers; and to engage the imagination of students and the public across the globe in ocean science, coral reefs, conservation, and underwater technology.

Aquarius, which sleeps six, is pressurized so that scientists and staff can live for weeks underwater with air, hot running water, electricity, and high-speed Internet. Most importantly, reports the Associated Press, it supports scuba dives of up to nine continuous hours without decompressing -- which researchers say allows them to accomplish in a week what takes months in dives from a boat.

"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," Joseph Pawlik, a UNCW marine biologist and long-term researcher at Aquarius, told the Wilmington Star News Online. "To lose that at such a critical time would be a particularly big loss, so now we're just rooting for FIU."

Star News reports that FIU has already received verbal approval to take over Aquarius, which costs about $1.5 million a year for basic operations, and should received a written agreement this week.



Aquarius Reef Lab, Key Largo