Guest post: An underwater science ‘Mission’

This guest post is written by Lori Lennon, com­mu­ni­ca­tions coor­di­nator and senior writer in the Col­lege of Sci­ence.

You could say I am a little biased, but the sci­en­tists here in the Col­lege of Sci­ence at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity are doing some amazing research, which has offered up some pretty cool oppor­tu­ni­ties for them.

Ear­lier this month, pro­fes­sors Mark Pat­terson (Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence and Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering) and Brian Hel­muth (Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ence and School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs) announced they would be sci­ence advisers to a team of aqua­nauts led by Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of the famous Jacques Cousteau, called Mis­sion 31. (Seri­ously, how many people can say that?)


Fabien and a team of researchers will spend 31 days under­water exploring the envi­ron­mental impacts of cli­mate change and how it is changing coral reefs, pol­lu­tion, and over­con­sump­tion prob­lems. The team will be sta­tioned in Aquarius, an under­water facility where sci­en­tists live and work on the coral reef. While surface-​​based scuba divers are lim­ited in the amount of time they spend on the bottom due to the build-​​up and release of gases in the body, Aquarius aqua­nauts instead allow their bodies to become “sat­u­rated” with Nitrogen. This pro­vides almost unlim­ited time on the bottom, but also the problem that they cannot sur­face until the end of the mis­sion. Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion and is posi­tioned 63 feet below sea level, nine miles south of Key Largo, Fla. (Want to see what Aquarius looks like? Check it out.) This sta­tion is the only undersea marine habitat and lab devoted to sci­en­tific research in the world.

The team will launch sat­u­ra­tion training in mid-​​September and will sub­merge on Sept. 30. The first full day on Aquarius will be Oct. 1.

Besides the obvious cool factor of Fabien Cousteau leading the endeavor, Mis­sion 31 will be the longest under­water mis­sion ever hosted by Aquarius. The team will spend one more day and go 30-​​feet deeper than the mis­sion led by Cousteau’s leg­endary grand­fa­ther 50 years ago.

Here’s where North­eastern comes into play. Mark Pat­terson and Brian Hel­muth will be sci­ence advisers to Mis­sion 31 and help direct its research projects. In fact, the data col­lected will help advance Northeastern’s Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive. The Col­lege of Sci­ence held a con­fer­ence to kick off this ini­tia­tive last month that included a lec­ture by leg­endary explorer Sylvia Earle, who will also take part in Mis­sion 31 as VIP vis­itor. If you missed it, or want to learn more, we’ve posted the video from her talk here.

Need­less to say, both Pat­terson and Hel­muth are looking for­ward to this project. “I am excited by the unprece­dented length of the mis­sion, over which they will gather data for North­eastern,” said Pat­terson, who will be onsite three times during the dura­tion of the mis­sion, with sev­eral planned visits inside for out­reach events, some involving the North­eastern community.

Living under­water allows sci­en­tists to com­plete research that nor­mally would requires many months of sur­face diving,” Hel­muth said. “This is really the only way for a sci­en­tist to lit­er­ally be immersed in the nat­ural envi­ron­ment long enough to get a feel for how this amazing ecosystem works, and to gen­uinely under­stand just how much we humans are changing it.”

In addi­tion to amazing research, there is a valu­able edu­ca­tion factor to this project. Stu­dents in class­rooms all over the world will be able to watch the explo­rations first-​​hand through Skype and Ustream, and the Weather Channel will pro­vide ongoing cov­erage of the mis­sion. This will give many stu­dents the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence the ocean and interact with researchers like they never have before. “One of the most rewarding aspects of working with Aquarius is an oppor­tu­nity to share the excite­ment with school chil­dren,” Hel­muth said. “During a mis­sion in 2000, we stayed in con­stant con­tact with five class­rooms over email and video link, and in 2001 we trained a third grade teacher to use mixed gas diving so that she could con­duct research with us.  Over 10 years later, we still hear from some of the kids about how much it changed their under­standing of the ocean.”

In a recent release, Fabien Cousteau expressed his excite­ment to not only build upon his grandfather’s legacy, but to also show the world the beauty and fragility of the ocean.  “Using the latest camera tech­nology, we will be able to show the world every second of Mis­sion 31 in unedited, real-​​time and I believe it’s going to shock people. We have explored less than 5 per­cent of our ocean realms; there’s so much more to be discovered.”

You can follow the mis­sion on Twitter (@Mission_31), on Face­book, and through the Mis­sion 31 web­site. We here in the Col­lege of Sci­ence will also be pro­viding updates on Pat­terson and Hel­muth through our own social media chan­nels.

Stay tuned!