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Whole New World 

The UA is turning Biosphere 2 into a climate-change laboratory

As director of external affairs for Biosphere 2, Hassan Hijazi sometimes finds himself fielding phone calls from Hollywood producers who want to know if the giant terrarium is available for reality-TV shows.

He politely lets them know that the Biosphere is more interested in working with the Discovery Channel these days.

"We want to do serious science at the Biosphere," Hijazi says.

That hasn't always been the case. The Biosphere 2 has, in the words of UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz, "a complicated history."

When it was first under construction in the late 1980s on Oracle Road/Highway 77 north of the tiny community of Catalina, the gleaming glass building—which covers roughly 3.14 acres and rises 91 feet from the ground—was designed to be sealed up for a century, with small crews rotating in and out every two years. It included different "biomes"—a tropical rainforest, a grassland savannah, a mangrove wetland, a desert, a small saltwater ocean and beach, and a farm where Biospherians were to grow their food—along with compact crew quarters and a mission-control center that bore some resemblance to the starship Enterprise.

The first jump-suited crew entered the building in 1991, with considerable media fanfare and the suggestion that this could be the first step toward developing outposts on other planets.

But many scientists were skeptical of Biosphere 2, and the mission came to a premature end shortly after the second crew entered the facility in 1994. Billionaire Ed Bass, a Texas oilman whose fortune paid for most of the Biosphere's $150 million construction cost, pulled the plug on the management and eventually turned over control to Columbia University, which ran it until the college abandoned the project in 2003.

Today, Biosphere 2 and the 1,650 acres that surround it are owned by CDO Ranching and Development, which plans to build green, luxury homes on the property.

In the meantime, CDO is leasing out the 34-acre Biosphere 2 campus to the University of Arizona, which is covering the costs of running the facility through a $30 million grant from Bass' Philecology Foundation.

Travis Huxman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who is the director of Biosphere 2, says a team of UA faculty consulted among themselves and with outside scientists to determine how they could use the facility for research before agreeing to take it over.

"We've seen it go through cycles of promising good science and then being less than able to deliver on it," Huxman says. "We wanted to be sure that we would be doing science that couldn't be done anywhere else and use the facility to full capacity. ... If you can do it somewhere else, you should, because it's cheaper."

The new focus: studying the impact of climate change, particularly on water patterns.

Several small-scale studies are underway; Huxman was a co-author of the first peer-reviewed paper involving the Biosphere 2 since the UA took it over. The report, which ran in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined how well piñon pines from New Mexico survived under drought conditions in different biomes. The conclusion: Under typical drought conditions, the pines die off five times more often if temperatures rise by 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers are now planning their first large-scale experiment. They've cleared out the biome where Biospherians once grew their crops, and the now-bare concrete floor will soon be covered by experimental hillsides to better understand how water moves through the earth from mountains to rivers, says John Adams, Biosphere 2's assistant director for planning and facilities.

Once three hillsides have been created, researchers will pour rain onto them and use sensors to measure the movement of the water. After taking those measurements for a few years, they'll add vegetation and eventually start adjusting temperatures and CO2 levels.

"This will be an experiment that will be 10 years or longer, and you've got people who are soil scientists; you've got plant physiologists; you've got people who put together all these models and predictions of how things may or may not change if temperatures rise or CO2 levels increase," says Adams.

How water patterns will be altered as a result of climate change remains a mystery. Huxman says Biosphere 2 offers the chance for researchers from hydrology, ecology and atmospheric sciences to find new ways to collaborate on water studies.

"It's a little shocking that something that's so important to us doesn't have a stitched-together fundamental theory," Huxman says. "We understood how to split an atom and create an atomic bomb before we understood the physics of how water ascended a tree and evaporated into the atmosphere."

Researchers at work on experiments sometimes play a public role, explaining their work to visitors to Biosphere 2. The tours—last year, the facility hosted about 65,000 people, but the university hopes to boost that number to 120,000 within a few years to generate funds to help offset operating costs—take guests through the biomes and offer a look at the old living quarters. Visitors also get a backstage peek at the concrete tunnels underneath Biosphere 2, where rumbling machinery and a network of pipes and vents maintain temperatures and other climate conditions.

Maintaining those environments in the Sonoran Desert summer is not cheap, but the university is working to lower the costs. Opening some windows and venting the giant greenhouse has helped lower energy costs by as much as 70 percent, Adams says.

As a first step toward developing solar energy on the property, Biosphere 2 received a donation of 470 solar panels earlier this year, courtesy of SOLON Corp., a German engineering firm that has a Tucson manufacturing plant.

The 40 kilowatts of solar panels will help power a collection of casitas and a conference center known as the B2 Institute, where the UA hosts symposiums, teaching seminars and other get-togethers. This summer, for example, it played host to elementary-school science and math teachers from around the state who attended a three-week training course to hone instructional skills.

Jim Gentile, the executive director of Tucson-based Research Corporation for Science Advancement and a member of Biosphere 2's advisory board, says hosting conferences at the facility offers a chance for participants to seriously focus on whatever topic is at hand.

"For those kinds of conferences, you don't want to go to a fancy resort, because there's too much else to do," Gentile says. "People lose the focus of why they're there. Having a rattlesnake-surrounded conference center as nice as the Biosphere is really of value."

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