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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Around the world in an afternoon

    Imagine traveling from the depths of a dense rainforest to the sweltering heat of a sunbaked desert in the time it takes to get off the couch and walk to the fridge.

    While most people would view this feat as impossible, that’s not the case if you live in Tucson.

    Biosphere 2, located in the desert a few miles outside of Oracle, Ariz., is one of the few places on earth where one can experience the planet’s most diverse environments in the course of a single afternoon.

    Ranging from an artificial salt water ocean to a dense rainforest, the Biosphere’s five distinct biomes, or regional areas characterized by certain plant life, are not only visually appealing, but act as a lab for some of our country’s most cutting edge research in environmental sustainability,

    Javier Espeleta, the associate director of science at Biosphere 2, recently gave the Summer Wildcat an in-depth tour of the world’s only completely enclosed and self-sustained biomes.

    Upon stepping through the steel airlock that once separated the eight Biospherians from the outside world in the early 1990s, one will find him or herself astounded by the sheer scale of Biosphere 2, which encompasses two and a half football fields.

    Espeleta explained that the scale of the biosphere is what makes it truly unique.

    “”The Biosphere acts as a bridge between the laboratory and the real world,”” Espeleta said.

    The tour started in the Biosphere’s tropical savannah, where the trail meanders along a 40-foot cliff ledge overlooking the Biosphere’s 1 million-gallon tropical ocean, the largest body of saltwater at its elevation in the country.

    After venturing around the Biosphere’s thick mangrove swamp, Espeleta proceeded to the tropical rainforest biome that is home to over 150 different species of plants, some of which have grown to be over 60 feet tall.

    Upon entering the rainforest biome, one will immediately notice the sharp increase in humidity from the abundance of plant life that covers almost every square inch of surface.

    “”We can measure the amount of CO2 that is produced from a single leaf of the rainforest,”” Espeleta explained. “”Our research is helping us determine how one plant can impact an entire ecosystem.””

    After passing through the tropical rainforest, Espeleta led the way to the biosphere’s desert biome, an area that closely resembles the world on the other side of the glass where Biosphere scientists are conducting research on drought-resistant plants.

    Finally, the tour takes visitors through the subterranean technosphere, where the Biosphere’s artificial climate controls are located. Espeleta explained that researchers are able to control every variable of the biosphere ranging from temperature and humidity to inducing a flood or drought.

    After traveling down a long steel tunnel, Espeleta concluded the tour in one of the facility’s two geodesic lungs. He explained that the Biosphere’s lungs help to circulate air and prevent an explosion when the facility is completely isolated from the outside world.

    Biosphere Research:

    Since the UA took control of the facility in July 2007, UA-affiliated researchers have been utilizing the artificial environments, provided by the Biosphere, to develop models and instrumentation to answer critical questions about earth’s ever-changing environment.

    “”We are developing new ways to help the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other agencies predict what will be happening to our world 20 years down the road,”” said Espeleta. “”Will Phoenix be a viable place to live in 20 years? No one knows for sure, but the research we are doing now will help to answer that question and many others.””

    UA researchers are currently utilizing the artificial environment provided by the biosphere in order to conduct the largest experiment at the facility since the UA took over management of the site.

    The experiment will monitor the accelerated evolution of landscapes in order to evaluate how vegetation, climate, water runoff and numerous other variables will impact a region’s natural resources over a long period of time.

    “”We strongly believe we will have changes in natural resources due to the rapidly changing environment,”” said John Adams, assistant director of planning and facilities at Biosphere 2. “”What we are trying to do is provide a better predictive look of how climate change is going to influence the invaluable resource of water.””

    In order to conduct the experiment, Biosphere scientists will convert what was once an agricultural biome into three, large identical hillslopes that will be used to measure the erosive effects of natural variables over a projected 10-year period.

    Funding Concern:

    While the Biosphere is undeniably a tremendous boon to scientific research, the future of the facility under the university’s supervision is in question.

    Biosphere 2 is currently operating under a $30 million research grant from the Philecology Foundation, a grant that should support research at the facility in the near future.

    However, once the grant runs out, the future of UA research at the Biosphere will rest on the contributions of private research groups and, more importantly, increased visitation by the public.

    “”We currently have 60,000 visitors to the Biosphere per year,”” said Matthew Adamson, the senior program coordinator at the Biosphere. “”We want to get this number up to 150,000 in order to fund the research that is taking place.””

    In order to increase public visitation and develop more extensive outreach programs, the Biosphere 2 Institute has started a partnership with the Arizona Center for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathmatics) Teachers, which provided the Biosphere with a $1.5 million grant to provide advanced science education to K-12 teachers and students at no cost.

    “”Our goal is to increase the public’s science literacy through hands-on experimentation,”” Adamson said.

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