Science under glass

Biosphere 2 gets a second life


Name Biosphere 2
23 years old
Size 34.5 acres
Claim to fame A lab that replicates the Earth's biomes, now the site for developing a "universal theory of water"

The landscape is a microcosm of the American Southwest: scrubby foothills shadowed by a ragged range; a few cows munching dry grasses; a moldering high-end home development, not even half of it sold.

A mile or so on and you're at the moonstation, or on Mars, or whatever other planet we decide to colonize. There, rising from a barren valley, are the white Space Age structures, sharp against the cloudless blue sky -- a terrarium for humans, not turtles -- a whole world under glass.

Biosphere 2, which lies about 35 miles north of Tucson, is already famous. In the early 1990s, a group of futurists and ecologists sealed themselves inside and ran long experiments in under-glass survival. It all became controversial and a bit lurid, as experiments involving humans in close quarters tend to do.

Travis Huxman, who is spearheading the University of Arizona's ambitious new plans to do "big science" at this unique facility, says those much-publicized human experiments simply "taught us how much we don't know about the earth."

The original impetus for constructing a simulation of the earth's major biomes was to explore the real-time evolution of relationships among and within disparate but ultimately interdependent ecosystems, including the human biome. Taking cues from the original Biospherians, the university is now using the facility -- with its miniature ocean, rainforest, savanna and coastal desert -- to solve one of the "grand challenges" of science: how plant communities affect the behavior and movement of water.

To do this, researchers are building three identical hill slopes in the corner of the dome where the old Biospherians grew their crops. Over the next 10 years, a multidisciplinary group of scientists will use the hill slopes to, in Huxman's words, develop a "universal theory of water." They hope to refine the way scientists think about the hydrological cycle, which Huxman calls the "hammer (with which) global climate change will hit the earth."

We can already see the marks that hammer is leaving across the West, where some of the largest stands of conifers on the planet are stressed and diseased from long-term drought. What if, say, the famous ponderosa pine forests of north-central Arizona die out entirely? Will they one day grow back, or has the ecosystem changed irrevocably? We have no idea how the water cycle will react if a single dominant species like the ponderosa disappears entirely from the ecosystem. "That's the big research question," Huxman says. "How will all this affect water?"

In other words, will the water still get to the river -- and eventually to our faucets?

When you're inside Biosphere's glass structures, picking your way along ant-covered boardwalks through a misty rainforest, you tend to forget the thirsty desert outside. But that desert is part of the reason this place is here. It couldn't exist in the same way anywhere else.

First, there are few places on earth where you can count on 350 days of sunshine every year. The Tucson area is one of them. If you had to supplement the light inside the structures, explains John Adams, Biosphere 2's assistant director of planning and facilities, it just wouldn't work. And second, there are even fewer places where a real estate deal can contribute to the onward march of science. Arizona remains one of the nation's fastest-growing regions, despite the recent economic slowdown.

Two years ago, the Texas-based corporation CDO Ranching and Development (which has deep ties to Texas billionaire Edward Bass, who built the facility in the 1990s) purchased Biosphere 2 and the lands surrounding it for $50 million and then leased the facility to the university for a nominal fee. At the same time, Bass' Philecology Foundation gave the university enough money to keep the Biosphere going for up to 10 years. To make it all pay, CDO planned to build hundreds of tile-roofed homes around the laboratory, perhaps even a resort and other commercial endeavors. Adams called the deal an "eleventh-hour" saving grace for the lab.

Today, the Biosphere is busier than ever, but there's something still conspicuously absent from the landscape. Those hundreds of homes have yet to be built -- and no one knows when they will be. The developers are in a kind of "wait and see" mode, says Peter Backus, CDO's local broker and a member of the Biosphere's advisory board. "We are definitely not going to be ahead of the market," he says. But however hot or cold that market gets, he adds, it won't affect the science underneath the glass.

After all these years, then, Biosphere 2 is still about relationships -- between water and plants, between science and commerce, and between humans and our imperfect understanding of how the real biosphere sustains us.

Tim Hull is a freelance writer based in Tucson.

May 27, 2009 05:32 AM

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