In addition to a long history of working on coral reefs and with the Aquarius habitat, Mark Patterson and I (Brian Helmuth) are part of Northeastern University's recently launched Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative which brought our two labs to the NU's Marine Science Center in Nahant. We are excited not only about the science of coral reefs, but also what it takes to live sustainably with the sea, and FIU's Aquarius and Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31 provide the perfect opportunity to explore these ideas and share them with the world.
Our marine lab in Nahant, MA is fortuitously situated on the tip of a peninsula that is influenced both by the open waters of the Gulf of Maine and the urban shores of Boston and Lynn. The location of the lab provides a unique opportunity to study how climate change is altering urban coastal environments like ours and, more importantly, to figure out what we can proactively do about it. Like other marine scientists we have observed the deterioration of the oceans from overfishing, pollution, plastics and climate change, and are alarmed at what the future holds for our kids. The same factors are affecting the reefs surrounding Aquarius: increasing temperatures have led to bleaching and disease, and nutrient and sediment run off from land threatens corals and sponges. By the end of the Mission, with the very cool techniques for detecting pollution used by our colleague at Northeastern Dr. Loretta Fernandez, we will also hopefully have a sense of whether any residual contaminants from oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico have made their way to the Florida Keys.
Climate change almost never exerts its impacts alone, but interacts with things like coastal development, pollution and overharvesting. While we, like many other scientists, are interested in how ecosystems work on pristine coastlines far from human influence, we especially want to understand the vulnerability of ecosystems that include humans. Our goal is to expand on this knowledge to create cleaner, safer, smarter coastal communities that will be sustainable for many years to come, both for humans and for the ecosystems on which we depend. Mission 31 is the ultimate expression of what we are interested in studying, and Fabien Cousteau the perfect spokesperson for what we all hope to teach the next generation of scientists and policy makers: simply put, if we naively consider ourselves as somehow separate from the natural environment in which we live, bad things will happen.
Aquarius takes this to the extreme- despite all of our technology, the Aquanauts are living on, and as part of, the coral reef and there is no way to escape the fact that despite our best precautions Aquanauts are still subject to the whims of nature. Mark and I have both been in Aquarius when storms have hit, and when that happens you get a rather close up and personal reminder of the power of nature. Aquarius sits on a 120 ton baseplate, but in heavy waves the thing still moves around, making you very conscious of the vast volume of water surrounding you, and the forces that it can exert. And when water starts blurbing up into the wet porch, there is a moment where you truly begin to question just how fail safe human-made structures are. Don't get me wrong- the Aquarius habitat techs are the best in the world at what they do, and I would never hesitate to put myself in their hands- but no human-made structure has ever stood up indefinitely to the power of nature. And in a way that really is the lesson that we're trying to get across: while there are many ways to engineer coastal cities like Boston to adapt to changing climate, in the end, if we refuse to work cooperatively with the ocean, rather than trying fruitlessly to subdue it, nature will inevitably bite us in the rear.
During the last two weeks of the mission, the Northeastern science team will explore everything from sponge and coral physiology to the potential impact of unseen environmental contaminants, but what we will always have in the backs of our minds is, o.k., now what do we DO about it.......?