Saturday, May 5, 2012

Biosphere II Equals Big Science

Today's adventure was a visit to the University of Arizona's research facility Biosphere II, a trip well worth the effort. On it's face Biosphere II is an amazing engineering feat with an equally amazing scientific history. From the original 2 year closed system experiment to it's current day use studying climate change one thing is certain a great deal has been learned from Biosphere II and much more scientific discovery is underway at the facility today. At first glance it is the facility itself that is awe inspiring. The design is truly unique with it's massive size and geometric construction it is definitely a one of a kind experience.

This section of the building houses the Rainforest which has not changed a great deal since the early days of the Biosphere but is slated for some new an exciting research to enhance our understanding of the effects of climate change on our rain forests. Climate change is a great deal about changes in access to water and what happens when ecosystems are either deprived of water or conversely receive moisture in excess. It is my understanding that the first phase of this multi-year experiment will involve depriving the biome of water for a total of 40 days which I'm sure will have some very negative consequences for a system used to ample daily moisture.

Biosphere II is located at approximately 4000 feet above sea level a half hour north of Tucson Arizona with sweeping views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. For anyone visiting the area this facility is a must visit. Tours are run throughout the day and take around 1 1/2 hours to complete. You won't be disappointed as this is one of the most unique structures in the world.

Biosphere II is dedicated to science in a big way and although the tour is too short to get an in depth understanding of all the experimentation taking place it is easy to see that projects like this extreme incline solar experiment and many others are small pieces of a larger experiment in understanding the effects of climate change and ways to ameliorate it's negative effects on Biosphere I.

There are many displays available in the "living quarters" that help with understanding the basic purpose of the Biosphere and past and current experiments that epitomize the work being done at Biosphere II.

The structure is as amazing on the inside as it is on the outside. This photograph shows a small portion of the living area which was not as big as I expected considering the overall size of the facility. It was very interesting to see where the original eight individuals lived during their two year stay inside the closed system.

The above picture shows the construction of the next major climate change experiment to take place in what is best described by as LEO. The following is a description of the experiment that was taken from a Biosphere website.
The Biosphere 2 Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) will consist of three massive landscapes constructed inside an environmentally controlled greenhouse facility. LEO aims to address fundamental “grand challenges” in Earth systems science:

How do water, energy and carbon move through landscapes?
How do biological systems (vegetation and microbes) modify landscapes?
How will water resources alter with climate change?.

This sounds like an exciting use of the space as I have always believed that availability of water is the key to all things environmental. No water, no clean water, poisoned water, too much water, the wrong kind of water, water that's too warm or too cold, water in the wrong places........ I will be waiting for this important project to open for public access as I'm sure it will be very enlightening.

A facility like the Biosphere allows scientist's to control the conditions under which they wish to observe results. Out in the rain forests you cannot shut off the water to see the effects. Inside the Biosphere all things are possible and withholding moisture is not a problem. The size and design of the facility allow for "big science" and big experiments under controlled conditions which could not be replicated anywhere else. Biosphere is a truly remarkable opportunity to change the future of the planet.

The ocean was brought to the Biosphere from the San Diego area in refrigerated trucks so that it would contain all the organisms present in the Pacific. At the rear of the photo is an area of mangrove swamp whose soil conditions are actually taken from a mangrove in Florida.

The photos below are from the Rainforest Biome which is about to undergo some radical experimentation and I can't help but feel a little sad as this area is lush and beautiful. Hard to imagine it any other way but I guess it's for a good cause.

Experimentation is the reason this facility exists and there is evidence of many on going experiments throughout the different biomes. Below is an explanation of one experiment that I found particularly interesting. Enlarge the photo by clicking on it to read about it.

As a former Director of Engineering I can appreciate the skill and knowledge it took to first imagine and engineer and then construct this one of a kind facility. From the visionaries to the financiers to the engineers and scientists this project is certainly one of the scientific and engineering wonders of the world as the following photos will attest.

These are shots of the LEO project from the exterior and one of my favorite parts of the building. You can certainly tell what a difficult design and build this must have been.

1 comment:

  1. Huh! I had no idea this was being operated by the UofA. I saw the billboards coming into Tucson and they give the impression of a "roadside attraction" a la Rattlesnake Ranch or Mystery Spot. I mean who thought of the slogan "There's only one Biosphere II"?

    Thanks for the informative post.