A journey to Aquarius—the last underwater research lab

Brian Lam—former editor at Gizmodo, current editor at the ocean-centric Scuttlefish blog—got to visit the world's last remaining underwater scientific research station. Aquarius was built in the late 1980s and launched in 1992, but it was preceded by a huge 1960s-era boom in underwater laboratory development. Conshelf, Sealab, Tektite—these should all be familiar names. But they're all gone now. Which sucks, because having a place where you can study the ocean from inside the ocean is pretty damned useful.

For instance, if you study fish behavior, there's only so much you can learn from watching them in captivity or going on short dives in nature. As Sylvia Earle—grand doyenne of oceanography and the leader of the current Aquarius mission—told Lam, it's actually surprisingly uncommon to see one fish eat another (living, breathing, not-being-tossed-into-a-tank-as-food) fish. And understanding those predatory relationships can be really important to understanding species and ecology.

Aquarius sits on the sea floor, just off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. In a Gizmodo post, Brian Lam describes what's inside the 20-year-old research station, and what it's like to be a visitor there.

In its 20 years of operation, the base has gone from being a pristine piece of yellow painted metal—an alien outpost placed here by man—into an overgrown native of the reef, where sea life and humans live side by side. Fish hang out and pass by every viewport all day, unafraid of the humans inside or visitors like ourselves. Corals grow onto bolts and view ports need to be scraped free of biofouling every week or so using 3m non abrasive pads.

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Destroying stuff for science

How do engineers know that the pillars supporting a bridge can withstand the force of thousands of cars driving over them for decades? How do we know what would happen to that bridge during an earthquake? What about an earthquake in winter?

Buildings, roads and bridges are all designed with a buffer of safety—basically, engineers round up on the numbers, a lot, and design these things to be far more sturdy than they actually have to be. But to make those decisions, they first have to know the physical limits of the materials they're working with. The best way to do that: Take a scaled version of a girder, pillar, or concrete slab and push it past the breaking point. Yes, this is, in fact, as awesome as it sounds.

The Constructed Facilities Laboratory at North Carolina State University is one of the places in the United States where this kind of research happens. In this lab, engineering researchers shake, bend, freeze, and crush the stuff that supports our world. I got to take a tour of this lab back in January, led by lab manager, Greg Lucier.

The videos here will take you through the 4500-square-foot lab and introduce you to the equipment these engineers use—from giant compression machines to something called a "Thermotron environmental chamber."

We'll start with a quick spin around the lab, just to get acquainted with the space. Then, you'll learn how some of the systems you see here work and why they're so important. Read the rest