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Climate Change Research at Biosphere 2 16 Apr 1998


APRIL 16 – 30, 1998

Changing role for Biosphere 2

The largest enclosed ecological laboratory will help further climate change research

By Ashali Varma

SONORAN DESERT, Arizona-Described as the world’s largest enclosed ecological laboratory,  Biosphere 2 looks like a futuristic deserted city, rising out of the rocky landscape of the Sonoran desert. Its 7,200,000 cubic foot, sealed glass and space frame structure occupies 3.15 acres and houses five ecosystems: a rainforest, savanna, desert, marsh and even a 900,000 gallon ocean. It is sealed off from the Earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner. Built at a cost of $150-200 million dollars by billionaire Edward Bass, Biosphere 2 is now run by Columbia University as a research and teaching facility. The rainforest habitat has trees and plants that have been transplanted from actual rainforests. However, a tour of the rainforest leaves a visitor convinced that man cannot really encapsulate nature. There is no lush canopy of trees that hide the sun or the thick, diverse undergrowth of flora and fauna that one associates with a vibrant, flourishing ecosystem.

The guide said that even though 300 species of plants were introduced initially, only about 100 survived. Among the insect life, ants and cockroaches are flourishing.

The most intriguing aspect of Biosphere 2 is the sheer dynamics of trying to emulate nature artificially. Huge pipes supplying rainwater, oxygen and carbon dioxide run along the length of the buildings and 1,500 sensors monitor the vital statistics of the laboratory, measuring temperature, light, humidity, carbon dioxide levels. In response to these readings operators can turn on blowers for cooling or heating or create a miniature rainstorm to change the humidity.

The highly publicized experiment based on sealing humans inside the closed system lasted only two years because oxygen levels dropped by 50 percent. Columbia scientists found the answer: Microbes in Biosphere 2’s excessively rich soil were ravenously consuming oxygen as they decomposed organic matter.

While working on the problem, researchers became intrigued with Biosphere 2 itself to help address some of the Earth’s most compelling environmental questions. How will the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere impact the ecology of our planet?  Will the rise of carbon dioxide allow us to grow more food with less water?

Today carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is the highest it has been in a  million years at360 parts per million (ppm). Justprior to industrial revolution the level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere was 280 ppm.  This increase was caused by burning coal, oil and natural gas.

Lisa J. Graumlich, Dean of the Earth Learning Center of Columbia University at Biosphere 2, said that as a research learning facility, the Biosphere has tremendous advantages.  Because it is a sealed laboratory, researchers can elevate the concentration of carbon dioxide and study the effects on the different ecosystems.

Several research projects are now under way.  One examines how food crops benefit from an atmosphere containing increased carbon dioxide.  Another explores how potential climate and ocean acidity changes impact coral reefs.  Another experiment involves planting “super trees” to determine how to store excess carbon in the atmosphere created from burning fossil fuels.