Biosphere 2 Today, A New Dynamic for Ecosystem Study and Education.
Background Information and Update.
Last Fall, in an article published in The New York Times,
Paradise Lost: Biosphere Retooled as Atmospheric Nightmare,
William J. Broad described the present condition and refitting of the
Arizona Biosphere an eight-story, glass-and-steel world in the wilds
of the Sonora Desert that cost $200 million to build. The article presents the following interesting biologic
dilemma and some proposed solutions. Broad tells us that an exotic species
of ant known as Paratrechina longicornus
somehow managed to kill off
all the other ants over the years, as well as the crickets and
grasshoppers. The ants were everywhere in Biosphere. Columbia University has taken on the management of
Biosphere 2 and hopes to "fix" this ecological mess, but not before
fully understanding the dynamics involved in the present scenario.
Broad relates that for two years, four men, four women and thousands of
species of plants and animals were sealed inside what amounted to a
giant terrarium in the Sonorran Desert of Arizona. The experiment
ended in 1993. Conditions at the end of the experiment were very
different from what had been expected, and Columbia is now working to
make and sustain "a kind of atmospheric hell that threatens to choke
the globe late next century with high temperatures and high levels of
carbon dioxide, a principal agent of global warming". Broad says,
"Columbia is now clearing out old growths and animals, planning new
ones and beginning to subdivide the would-be paradise into
experimental plots, curious to see if the three acres of futuristic
domes here can serve as a scientific testbed for anticipating the
effects of a warming climate, and perhaps avoiding negative ones".
This new study is expected to cost close to $40 million for science
and educational programs as well as new construction. To oversee the
achievement of these goals, Dr. William C. Harris has been named the
new president of Biosphere 2. Students and volunteers at the Biosphere
conduct most of their ecologic research outdoors, with the hope that
similar experiments might be brought inside at a later date. Part of
the Biosphere opened to the public in November, 1996 for the first
time: the former living space of the original "Biospherians" has been
sealed off from the rest of the domes and transformed into a visitor
center full of exhibits on climatic change. It is the first of the
subdivisions. As described by Broad, Biosphere 2 was financed by
Edward P. Bass, the Texas billionaire and oil heir, as a test of
John Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, the theory that the earth and its
living creatures evolved together as a self-regulating system that
maintains conditions that are optimum for life.
The details of this first enclosed living space were summarized
in the Nov. 15 issue of Science. There was a well-defined greenhouse
effect beyond what was predicted, as well as unpredictable changes in
the engineered ecological domains through ecologic succession. It is
now wellknown that oxygen levels dropped significantly, while carbon
dioxide and nitrous oxide (laughing gas!) levels increased. These
unusual atmospheric conditions caused overgrowth of carbon dioxide
loving Morning glory vines. Today, educational programs, tourist
dollars and visits are hoped to support the project and to promote
understanding of how Biosphere 1 (the Earth) functions. Problems faced
in refurbishing the site include disposal of soil contaminated with a
pathogenic nematode, that is unknown elsewhere in Arizona.
What you will see: Visitors will be able to tour the apartments,
kitchen and dining room where the Biospherians worked and lived. From
this area, visitors will also be able to look out into the rain
forest, ocean, desert, savannah and agricultural ecosystems that the
Biospherians struggled to manage. Also on view will be the
command-and-control room, still in use, where scientists monitor data
collected by 750 sensors within the enclosed 3-acre ecological
laboratory. In addition, the ground floor of the newly opened section
will become the permanent home of a major exhibition, "Climate Change
and Life on Earth", developed by the American Museum of Natural
History and the Environmental Defense Fund. Columbia has sealed off
the former habitation area from the rest of the Biosphere with glass,
so that visitors can get a good view inside, while scientists can
maintain a controllable environment within the rest of this unique
facility. "One of the greatest lessons learned from the original
Biospherian experiments is that Earth's systems are complicated,
delicately balanced, and capable of dramatic changes that could affect
all of us. We need to develop an awareness of our role in causing and
preventing climatic changes."
The Program at Biosphere 2 has several objectives:
- BIOME MANAGEMENT:
- Monitor and protect the health of organisms and communities throughout the site.
- Insure that plants and communities achieve the desired state of composition, structure and phenology in compliance with scheduled research activities.
- Provide information to researchers, students and others concerning the organisms on site and the history of Biosphere 2 biomes.
Rainforest Biome management. Pruning and support of trees to
stabilize their canopies within the structure of Biosphere 2.
A census of the tree species is being undertaken to give an
indication of the canopy dynamics and health of the trees. The
information is also important for creating and testing computer
Students are conducting studies to monitor plant phenology in all
the wilderness biomes of Biosphere 2. This requires regular
observation of plant activity, for example, growth and loss of leaves,
stems, flowers, fruit etc. A system of codes is used to record the
status of each plant selected for study. These data are correlated
with environmental factors.
Ant Ecology. The "crazy ant" (Paratrechina longicornis) dominates
the animal community of Biosphere 2, creating a situation very similar
to highly-disturbed tropical islands. Sugary excretions from
plant-feeding bugs (Order Homoptera) seem to be an important food
source for ants, so Homopteran diversity seems to be high and may be
favored by the presence of crazy ants.
Reptile Behavior. Baseline research on the behavior of the
Solomon Island Skink Corucia zebrata. These animals survived inside
Biosphere 2 during the first and second closed missions. Few studies
have been done on this species in its native island habitat.
- VOLUNTEER TASKS & PROJECTS:
- Trail Building in the Wilderness Biomes.
- Organization of the Biome Management filing system.
- Historical investigation into the ecological management of Biosphere 2.
- Reptile Exhibit building in the Public display areas.
- Pruning and weeding in the Wilderness Biomes.
- Maintenance scheduling and efficiency assessment of Wilderness Biome management.
- DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS.
750 sensors measure temperature, light, humidity, carbon dioxide
and other variables of air and soil. When conditions move out of the
ranges that the scientists have decided they want to maintain,
Biosphere Operations can make changes to stabilize the environment.
These data are continuously available online and will be very useful
for classroom activities. Students can plot the data on their
computer screen or download it to their computer. More sensors will
be added to the list as time goes on.
- RESEARCH PROJECTS.
- Marine Team.
Study of a radical new interpretation for the
massive precipitation of calcium carbonate by corals and reef algae is
now ongoing. This explanation, called the "Proton Hypothesis",
suggests that limestone precipitation serves mainly as an acid
generator. The acid is then used to convert bicarbonate to carbon
dioxide, which improves photosynthetic performance, and helps with
On-site study of the species composition of the Biosphere 2 Center
Reef, and studies of nutrient dynamics on coral reefs. For example,
one study revealed that the ecosystem as a whole takes up nutrients
with nearly perfect first order kinetics. The simplicity with which
the system can be characterized gives us great power in designing and
conducting ecosystem level experiments, and relating ecosystem
functioning to the governing physical parameters such as turbulence.
Corals and algae are the major producers of calcium carbonate
(limestone) in tropical, shallow parts of the ocean where they have
been living for centuries. Because of this, corals are useful geologic indicators
of global change, leaving signatures of ocean carbonate levels, coral
photosynthesis, and coral respiration in the carbon and oxygen
isotopes in a coral skeleton. We also know that North American climate is strongly influenced by the variability
of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Thus, isotopes and trace
metals sequestered in the skeletons of long-lived reef corals and
sponges allow one to generate multi-century records of tropical
Pacific temperatures far beyond available instrument records and allow
us to understand how anthropogenic climate forcing and natural climate
variability have each contributed to the recently observed shifts in
the global climate system. Similar shorter term studies are envisioned at the Biosphere 2
Rising levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere are
significantly altering the chemistry of the surface ocean. As a
result, the concentrations of carbon compounds dissolved in seawater
which are essential to the growth of corals may change by a factor of
two. At Biosphere 2, ongoing studies will tell us what effect the
changing ocean chemistry will have on the world's coral reefs in the
- Wilderness Ecosystem Research at Biosphere 2.
Global Environmental Changes and Ecosystem Functions. In the
past few years, there has been increasing interest about the potential
impact of global environmental changes on terrestrial ecosystems and
how the terrestrial biosphere regulates atmospheric composition and
global climate. Issues include the possible impact of elevated CO2,
temperature and nutrient loading on natural ecosystems as well as the
roles that these ecosystems play in regulating global climates. In
addition, the results from these experiments will be critical for
calibration and validation of ecophysiological scaling and biosphere
models that predict future dynamics of natural ecosystems.
Sophisticated LI-COR instrumentation is being used to measure CO2 and
H2O exchanges at the leaf, soil and whole-system level under different
CO2, temperature, water and nutrient regimes, and to provide stable
isotopic analyses of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen for partitioning
carbon and water fluxes. Other studies: Environmental control of
primary productivity in tropical mangrove swamps. Ecological
interpretation of tree-ring hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratio.
Development, calibration and validation of scaling and biosphere
- EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS.
Biosphere 2 Center's Earth Systems Field School. APPLY NOW!
A concentrated field course centered at the Biosphere 2 Center in
Oracle, Arizona, designed to give practical field experience in the
earth and environmental sciences from an Earth systems perspective.
The Earth Systems Field School introduces traditional mapping methods
as well as newer techniques -- including biological, geochemical and
geophysical assays -- that play increasingly larger roles in
environmental assessment. Students conduct mini-projects at field
sites in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the
Petrified Forest, as well as in Biosphere 2.
- Session 2: July 28 - August 22, 1997 (4 weeks, 4 credits)
- Location: Biosphere 2 Center in Oracle, Arizona, and adjacent
- Instructor: Paul Olsen, Storke Memorial Professor of
Geological Sciences, Kate Gregory, Roelof
- Students: Predominantly undergraduate and beginning graduate
students. Adult learners are welcome.
- Cost: (financial aid available for 1997 courses)
- Room & Board: $700
- Prerequisites: Introductory geology or environmental science and basic chemistry, or permission from instructor.
Summer Field School.
- Credits: 16 credits from Columbia College, Columbia University
- Students: Primarily undergraduates of any major. Adult learners welcome.
- Staff: Instructors in the fields of biological, physical and human aspects of environmental study.
- Tuition: $10,441
- Room: $1,250
- Activity Fee: $100
- Health Fee: $100
- Equipment Fee: $75 (refundable)
(Financial Aid is available.)
The impact of human activity on the global
environment has recently been confirmed; greenhouse warming, ozone
depletion and the loss of biodiversity are planetary management
problems. The solutions lie in understanding the physical and
biological underpinnings of these phenomena, as well as the human
processes that create policy responses. Organized around the global
environmental challenges posed by climate change and its potential
effects on water and air quality, biodiversity, agricultural
production, public health, etc. Students participate in lectures,
discussions, field trips and research projects that focus on climate
change and its impacts on biodiversity and fresh water resources. A
cornerstone of the program is a six week module on the modeling of
complex systems, using Biosphere 2 as the prime example. In addition
to day-trips in southern Arizona, there are two week-long field trips.
One is to study the geology, ecology and Native American archaeology
of Northern Arizona, including the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, the
Petrified Forest, and Canyon de Chelly. The second field trip takes
students to the Gulf of California in Sonora, Mexico, where the focus
is coral reef dynamics and marine management.
Please direct comments, questions, suggestions to:
Biosphere 2 Center, P.O. Box 689
Oracle, AZ 85623
Telephone: (520) 896-6315
Fax: (520) 896-6429