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Florida university takes over undersea science lab

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MIAMI (AP) — A South Florida university is taking over a Florida Keys underwater research laboratory that had been set to close because of federal budget cuts, officials said Tuesday.

Florida International University has received a grant to maintain Aquarius Reef Base for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2013. The Miami-area school also will develop a business model to fund future operations at the lab.

NOAA owns the pressurized lab that sits about 60 feet below the ocean's surface a few miles off Key Largo. The 43-foot-long metal tube — it looks like a mobile home encrusted with coral — allows scientists to live and work underwater for days at a time without coming up for air.

Aquarius was the last government-funded underwater lab until President Barack Obama's administration cut its $3 million annual funding. It had been scheduled to shut down at the end of 2012 unless private funding could be secured.

The new business model would aim to broaden financial support for the lab's operations to include other scientific institutions and private donations, instead of relying only on the federal government, said FIU biology professor Jim Fourqurean, who will oversee operations at Aquarius.

Marine scientists made what they thought would be their last dive to Aquarius in July. For two decades, year-round research at Aquarius allowed scientists to compile a continuous stream of data from one coral reef in a region where those fragile ocean ecosystems have rapidly declined. Scientists largely blame climate change and man-made stresses for that decline.

The unique long-term data collected at Aquarius is invaluable, Fourqurean said.

"The work is partly site-specific at Conch Reef, but that work also allows us to interpret what we've learned and apply it up and down the Florida Keys and elsewhere in the world," he said. "Keeping it for the value of the accumulated knowledge is an important thing."

Scientists staying at Aquarius are dubbed "aquanauts," and since 2001 their ranks have included NASA astronauts training for space missions.

Astronauts last trained at Aquarius in June on a mission that simulated a visit to an asteroid. NASA does not have plans for any training at Aquarius this year, said a spokesman for the space agency's office of human exploration and operations.

The advanced diving techniques that allow the aquanauts to stay at Aquarius also have been adapted for offshore drilling operations, and one former underwater lab has become an undersea hotel off Key Largo. But Aquarius appeared to be the only government-funded underwater research station left.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington ran the lab for NOAA from 1991 until last year. The existing Aquarius team will become FIU employees.

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Online:

Aquarius Reef Base: http://aquarius.uncw.edu/

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