Dawning of a New Era
I recently had the opportunity to interview explorer and NGS/Waitt grantee Michael Lombardi, following a successful deployment of a newly designed underwater portable habitat. Habitats have been used since the 60’s as inner space stations to conduct experiments and evaluate human behavior and physiology while spending long stays underwater. These first habitats, however, were rigid permanent structures that required heavy building materials and lots of funding. Just a few weeks ago there was a rumor that the last permanent habitat run by NOAA was shutting down, the end of the era of Aquarius.
So, where do we go from here? How do we continue our quest to learn about the ocean and form a bond so that we can live in the largest expanse on earth? Recently, Michael Lombardi was awarded an NGS/Waitt grant to test a new concept in underwater portable habitats that could potentially save lives, allow discovery of new species at deep sites, and provide divers with communication, rest and safety. Furthermore, his invention is light, portable, and could open the doors to a new era of exploration. I sat with Michael and asked a few questions:
What is a habitat and what is it used for?
An underwater habitat is a physical structure to help people live and work beneath the sea. The best known habitats came to be during the 1960’s and 1970’s during what might be described as our ‘inner space race’. Several programs were underway, with the principle objective of establishing a permanent human presence on the seafloor. These took place in the private sector, in academia, amongst the exploration community, and by government agencies. The rise and fall of this era is extremely well described in Ben Hellwarth’s recent book entitled, ‘Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor’. Very recently, NOAA’s Aquarius Habitat, the only remaining permanent habitat from this early work suffered a major federal budget cut, and is being closed. This represents the end of an era; where large, costly, immobile habitats for science will take the backseat to a next wave of improved techniques for human exploration and intervention of the seafloor.
Recent advances in diving technology, particularly closed circuit rebreathers – devices that recirculate the divers breathing gas – afford a myriad of benefits that allow for extended depth and duration forays on the seafloor. It is feasible to carry out single dives in excess of four to six hours, covering a vast expanse of ocean floor for scientific purposes. These types of excursions lead us to question the value of permanent habitats for science.
What benefits exist in this type of structure and how can it enable science and exploration?
Today, the paradigm in the marine sciences is to spend up to several weeks in the field per year, investigating broad geographical areas for any number of scientific disciplines. The field researcher needs to be mobile, must work efficiently on tight budgets, but must also have access to some region of ocean space that provides a competitive edge. My group’s work has focused on improving techniques for exploring Mesophotic coral ecosystems, or MCEs (www.mesophotic.org). This region of ocean space, from 200 to 500 fsw depth, is an international science priority, though remains largely inaccessible. While exploring these depths is feasible using the aforementioned rebreather systems, the limits of human physiology are quickly reached, and only relatively short deep excursions (the work phase of the dive) are possible. A bulk of the dive is dedicated to decompression, or allowing absorbed gasses to be released from our body’s tissues at a slow rate.
In our quest to dive deeper and longer, the need to revisit habitat technology presented itself, however in a different form.
The habitat we developed in cooperation with Subsalve serves a different purpose than the conventional permanent habitat, though is no less effective and exciting. Long decompression in the water means being cold, tired, dehydrated, and exposed. There is limited control over the immediate environmental exposure.
The cave community has used habitats for quite some time, principally to provide respite from these factors to the divers after long cave excursions. The systems are portable and are filled with gas to stick to the roof of the cave to stay put. This provides a very basic ‘bubble’ for the divers to rest in. (picture the old demonstration of placing an inverted glass in a sink full of water). These are not nearly as luxurious as the permanent habitats, however are incredibly effective in providing respite for several hours during decompression – allowing for longer forays at depth.
Going into this project, where we sought to deploy a habitat in openwater, we researched portable habitats extensively. Very limited efforts have been made previously, and those that had were still focused on permanence at depth rather than providing temporary respite during decompression. In openwater, such as on a deep coral reef, maintaining portability and ease of deployment during a short field excursion was the biggest challenge. Our system was very modular, in fact we traveled with the entire package as an extra piece of luggage!
Once deployed, we made a couple of dives and made short stays in the habitat to test diver ingress/egress, and assess the feasibility of spending very long decompression times in the habitat in the future. I believe this to be an industry first – that is using a rapid deployment portable inflatable habitat to augment deep decompression dives in openwater. This opens HUGE doors for science, as we can forseably conduct dives in excess of 500fsw on deep coral reefs with limited infrastructure, low cost, and maintain a level of productivity that justifies continued program investment. In 2010, we discovered a new fish species (Derilissus lombardii, Sparks & Gruber 2012) during a haphazard collection at depth in just a few short minutes. Extending dives at these depths to several hours will allow scientists to ask bigger questions in this alien environment, and considerably broaden our knowledge of these unexplored ocean habitats.
Is the future dependent upon our ability to cope with challenges and how do we move forward?
During a recent conference, one of my peers bluntly inquired ‘is it worth it?’ in reference to our proposing to use this habitat. My argument is, and has always been, that if we don’t look, we won’t find anything. The process of exploration is one of constant inquisition – this is deeply embedded in human nature. Looking into the future and dreaming is a start, but it truly takes action oriented people and projects to make marked demonstrations of our true capacity. More often than not, we (explorers) fail, though these failures guide continued evolutions to find success. It is an absolute must to look ahead, take bold steps, and chase dreams to make them a reality. While our habitat is a very, very small effort in the grand scheme of the ocean sciences, I believe that it marked a critical challenge that was met successfully and will have profound implications. The future of human exploration of the ocean requires technology to get that increased depth and duration. If this type of technology affords us routine access to unique environments, this may very well renew public interest and excitement in ocean exploration. That excitement is so very important today, as our relationship with the Blue Planet is severely strained.
Was the NGS/Waitt Grant fundamental in launching your idea?
In my experience, pursuing funds to support any project via conventional sources (i.e. NSF, NIH, NOAA, etc) is incredibly difficult given the current economic climate. This is particularly true for projects and programs that are far-reaching, well outside of the ‘norm’, and are high risk/high reward. Most exploration programs fit this outlying area – even in healthy economic times. The manner in which NGS/Waitt provides quick turnaround reviews and is able to support high risk projects that fit critical industry timelines or trends, is an absolutely necessary vehicle to enable true exploration in the field, and further catalyze the innovative and intellectual processes that follow.
In many cases, these types of projects would live on only as ideas on the long lists of very brilliant people without the financial boost that NGS/Waitt provides. The program stands alone, even within the NGS grants programs, in representing the true spirit of exploration, cutting edge science, and enabling resulting discoveries. These pursuits are essential to take any idea off of the list and make it a reality.
I can say for certain that my work has benefited tremendously from the NGS/Waitt program. In my case, not being a ‘researcher’ per se, rather an operations and program development person, the grants received have provided the necessary leverage to really begin to build a sustainable exploration enterprise around my work.
What do explorers dream about!
For me anyway, I dream about a day when I can leave the beach and spend a day, a week, or even a month underwater. Being in a new place for the first time is a priceless, breathtaking, and humbling experience. I stare out into a new frontier and see endless possibilities. The dream is to take us all there, one small step at a time.
Michael’s NGS bio page: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/michael-lombardi/
Previous Newswatch article: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/12/journey-into-inner-space-conquering-the-abyss/
Lombardi’s Blog: http://anewlifeinthesea.blogspot.com
Lombardi’s page: http://www.oceanopportunity.com/BahamaDeep.html
NG Weekend Radio Interview: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/10/ocean-space-habitat-a-new-concept-is-born/