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NOAA's Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, a natural laboratory for marine research and education

Several agencies and programs, one goal

By Kris Holderied

waterfront view of the KBL facilities

Kasitsna Bay Laboratory with the new dock. Laboratory and scuba buildings are to the right and one of dormitory buildings can be seen up the hill in the center. (Kris Holderied, NOAA)

The Kasitsna Bay Laboratory (KBL) is a unique partnership between NOAA's National Ocean Service (NOS) and Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), through the National Undersea Research Program (NURP). KBL is the Alaska field station of the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, under the NOS National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) helps to operate KBL under a Memorandum of Agreement with NCCOS and runs a cold water diving program at the laboratory as part of the West Coast and Polar Regions NURP Center. UAF has operated a dive training program at KBL for several years, funded by NURP and UAF's Graduate Program in Marine Science and Limnology. KBL has been a research field station for both NOS and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) since the late 1950s, coming under the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries before NOAA was created in 1972.;

Future plans include taking advantage of the laboratory's support facilities and sheltered location, along with its proximity to diverse and challenging environments, to test and develop coastal applications for autonomous and remotely-operated underwater vehicles (AUVs and ROVs)
Map of Cook Inlet region in couth central Alaska

Map of lower Cook Inlet region in south central Alaska. Figure courtesy of the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Kachemak Bay is in southeast part of Cook Inlet, near the entrance to the Gulf of Alaska. (larger image) (Kris Holderied, NOAA)

bull kelp drifts in the current

Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) in Kachemak Bay. (Brenda Konar, UAF)

KBL is located on the Kenai Peninsula in south central Alaska, approximately 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, and on the south side of Kachemak Bay in lower Cook Inlet. The laboratory is off the main Alaska highway system, but is accessible by both water and air taxi from the city of Homer, and is connected by road to the city of Seldovia, located about 9 miles away. The Cook Inlet region has one of the highest tidal ranges in North America, and is surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and active volcanoes, including Augustine Volcano, which erupted several times last winter, and Four Peaked Volcano which recently began to emit steam and gas plumes and may be approaching its first eruptive phase in recorded history. The diverse marine habitats in Kachemak Bay, from the kelp forests and rocky fjord substrates to seagrass beds on extensive mudflats, provide a natural laboratory for marine research and education. The region also contains multiple national parks, national wildlife refuges, state parks and critical habitat areas, and Kachemak Bay is the largest of 27 National Estuarine Research Reserves (NERRs). KBL research, education and outreach activities are coordinated with the Kachemak Bay NERR staff based in Homer, as well as with other government agencies, tribal organizations, schools, and non-profit education and conservation groups in the region.

A renewed facility strengthens its purpose

A diver characterizes underwater habitat

Diver characterizing underwater habitat in Kasitsna Bay. (Brenda Konar, UAF)

Since 2000 KBL has undergone an approximately $12.5 million renovation and construction program to develop state-of-the-art scientific research and teaching facilities. Access to the laboratory was improved with a new pier, and new research facilities include a wet/dry laboratory building with a 1,400 square foot running seawater laboratory, five dry laboratories, classroom, offices and storage space. Additional dry laboratory space is available in a renovated older building and year-round cold water diving is supported by a new SCUBA dive building and air compression system. Two new dormitory buildings provide housing for up to 48 people, with kitchen and laundry facilities, as well as internet connections. KBL also has an extensive machine shop capability, currently being upgraded, to support both research and facility operations. Recent laboratory research topics have included fisheries, mariculture, coastal monitoring, marine biodiversity, trophic dynamics, cold water diving, and oil spill response.

 Snow-packed walkway to scuba building

KBL walkway to scuba building (on right) during March 2006 Scientific Diving class. (Kris Holderied, NOAA)

KBL also has a long tradition of hosting marine science classes for graduate, undergraduate, and K-12 students, as well as for teacher training.  One example is the popular scientific diving class, currently taught by Dr. Brenda Konar of UAF, which takes place during the university spring break in March and can have "interesting" weather conditions. Next summer, KBL will host a series of week-long teacher training classes on marine invertebrates, macroalgae and connections between fisheries and oceanography. The new laboratory facilities and regional partnerships will allow expansion of both research and education efforts to better serve resource managers and the community. Future plans include taking advantage of the laboratory's support facilities and sheltered location, along with its proximity to diverse and challenging environments, to test and develop coastal applications for autonomous and remotely-operated underwater vehicles (AUVs and ROVs).

High school students characterize intertidal habitat.

High school science field camp participants conducting intertidal habitat characterization transect in Jakolof Bay, near KBL. (Kris Holderied, NOAA)

The mission of NCCOS is to provide coastal managers with the scientific information and tools needed to balance society's environmental, social and economic goals. Research and education efforts at the KBL focus on understanding the response of subarctic coastal and estuarine ecosystems to change – particularly climate variability, human impacts and extreme events. The goal is to provide federal, state, local and tribal agencies with the information, tools and training needed for scientifically-based resource management, using an integrated approach to understanding the ecosystem. Such an approach is particularly critical in regions such as coastal Alaska, with its vast size and rich natural resources, including fishery and protected marine species managed by NOAA. The partnership between NCCOS, UAF and NURP optimizes NOAA's capability to support these needs with research and development of cold water diving techniques, tools and observing technologies, as well as by promoting marine science education and environmental literacy.

For more information on the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, please contact Kris Holderied, acting NOAA KBL director or David Christie, the UAF KBL Director and director of the West Coast and Polar Regions NURP Center.  Additional information is also available at the following websites: Us/kasitsna and

Related Links:
NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science:
University of Alaska:

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Updated: December 7, 2006