Monitoring Earth’s climate from the ocean floor

Aquarius underwater

Scuba diving is the one way to reach the world’s only operating underwater research lab – and CBS News dove right in with our marine scientists and ecologists to see it for themselves.

Aquarius Reef Base was highlighted as part of CBS’ “Eye on Earth” series leading up to the landmark United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. Experts are monitoring the effects of climate change, testing state-of-the-art technology, engaging scientists across the globe and training students, astronauts and Navy divers.

Back in operation after Hurricane Irma damaged the surface unit, the lab provides the means to study coral reefs and the ocean floor for extended periods of time. Scientists are currently using this time to survey the impacts of Irma on seagrass beds that grow just off the coast.

There’s as much CO2 stored in seagrass meadows as there is in tropical forests according to James Fourqurean, Director of the Center for Coastal Oceans Research.

In addition to storm impacts and the changing climate, seagrass beds near the Base are disappearing due to an over-abundance of turtles driven by the lack of sharks in the area. This was an observation first made thanks to Aquarius Reef Base.

In 2014, Dean Michael Heithaus published a paper on the importance of seagrass ecosystems in the age of sea turtle conservation and shark overfishing. According to their results, turtles –  when found at high densities – can greatly reduce the heights, productivity, community composition and persistence of seagrasses. When balanced with a healthy shark population however, all seemed to thrive.

Seagrasses and the species who depend on them continue to face threats from a changing climate. Through ongoing work at Aquarius Reef Base, our experts are continuing their effort to understand how we protect these important resources.

The original article and video appeared on CBS News/CBS This Morning on September 16, 2019.