TUCSON, Ariz. — Federal, academic and international scientists will be eyeing Biosphere 2 this weekend to determine its suitability for climate research.
More than 60 specialists in climate and earth systems science research will gather at the once-controversial 3.15-acre sealed greenhouse with its own environment, independent of the outside world. A series of workshops and meetings Saturday through Tuesday is sponsored by Columbia University and the Energy Department.
“Scientists are a little bit like kids in a sandbox, and Biosphere 2 is just an incredible sandbox,” said Barry Osmond, president and executive director of the steel-and-glass domed giant terrarium 35 miles northeast of Tucson.
The conference is critical to the future of the Biosphere 2 Center, which is managed by Columbia’s Earth Institute, and is important to the emerging discipline of climate change — but DOE probably isn’t viewing it as a potential new national laboratory, Osmond said.
“It’s the only controlled-environment facility of that scale available anywhere on the planet to do experiments that are critical to climate-change science,” said Osmond.
The kinds of experiments Biosphere 2 can conduct will be critical to better understanding how the earth will respond to climate changes, he said.
“It’s the only place you can dial up the climate and run an experiment where you cause it to rain when you want it to rain,” or set a desired temperature or carbon dioxide concentration, he said.
At the same time, Osmond said he thinks it’s too soon for Biosphere 2 to be seen as a potential new national laboratory, such as Los Alamos, N.M., or Oak Ridge, Tenn., which focus on nuclear research.
“We’re still in the exploratory stage of climate change, and frankly this is the only device that is readily available for experimental kind of change,” Osmond said.
Among specialists attending will be researchers from the DOE, the Smithsonian Institution and five national labs, the Russian Academy of Science, institutes or universities in eight other countries, and more than a dozen American universities including Arizona, Arizona State and Harvard.
A report after the conference ends will assess the facility’s suitability for studying earth system science from the federal agency’s standpoint.
Providing experimental evidence for climate-change impact as part of the global warming issue has become part of the DOE mission, Osmond said.
Biosphere 2, financed at a cost of $200 million by Texas billionaire Edward P. Bass, debuted in 1991 as a space colony prototype, with distinct ecological sectors, or biomes: its own miniature ocean, rainforest, savannah, desert and farming area.
Eight “biospherians” lived inside for two years, growing their own food and recycling air, water and wastes, and the structure became a tourist attraction.
But crew members and operators were viewed as cult-like and critics questioned Biosphere 2’s scientific research, particularly when problems surfaced requiring outside intervention.
Subsequently, Bass ousted Biosphere 2’s administrators and turned day-to-day management over to Columbia University in late 1995, in hopes of shoring up its scientific credibility.
Columbia has used it for educational, environmental and global science research and tourism purposes.
Osmond noted that a National Academy of Sciences report just released lists the need for facilities for controlled-environment studies to help explore and understand climate-change science.
“We’ve got the prototype,” Osmond said. “We’ve had five years’ experience in making it work.”
The structure’s million-gallon ocean currently has 18 ongoing research projects, 10 run by other educational institutions partnered with Columbia.
Among its ocean experiments, a study has shown that coral reefs will be harmed as atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide increase.
A nonocean project is examining the impact of different levels of carbon dioxide on tree growth.
Biosphere 2 can and will undergo physical changes inside. “I think it’s still a work in progress,” chief of staff Chris Bannon said. “We are only restricted by the glass on the building.”
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