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Biosphere 2 Today, A New Dynamic for Ecosystem Study and Education.

Presenter: Evidio Musibay
Host: Gail Tucker
Discussion: SciTalk 4: Biosphere2 Today

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:

  1. BIOME MANAGEMENT:

    1. Monitor and protect the health of organisms and communities throughout the site.
    2. Insure that plants and communities achieve the desired state of composition, structure and phenology in compliance with scheduled research activities.
    3. Provide information to researchers, students and others concerning the organisms on site and the history of Biosphere 2 biomes.


  2. PROJECTS:
    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 simulation models.

    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.

  3. 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.


  4. 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.

  5. RESEARCH PROJECTS.

    1. 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 nutrient assimilation.

      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 reef.

      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 coming decades.

    2. 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 models.


  6. 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 Locales.
    • Instructor: Paul Olsen, Storke Memorial Professor of Geological Sciences, Kate Gregory, Roelof Versteeg.
    • Students: Predominantly undergraduate and beginning graduate students. Adult learners are welcome.
    • Cost: (financial aid available for 1997 courses)
    • Tuition: $3600
    • 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.)


    Earth Semester.
    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
    e-mail: ed26@columbia.edu


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