Scientists support climate research role for Biosphere 2

By Arthur H. Rothstein The Associated Press
Thursday December 20, 2001

TUCSON, Ariz. — Environmental scientists from around the world are supporting a plan for the U.S. Department of Energy to team with Columbia University to use Biosphere 2 for climate research, its director said. 

Government and academic scientists from countries including Russia, Japan, Italy, Australia and Israel met at the sealed giant terrarium to determine whether it would be a suitable site for such research. No specific plan has been devised. 

The conference, which ended Tuesday, was viewed as one that will guide the future of the Biosphere 2 Center, which now is an arm of Columbia University, managed by Columbia’s Earth Institute. 

University officials see the controlled-environment facility as critical to learning how the earth responds to changes in climate. Biosphere 2 has distinct ecological sectors, or biomes, that were built to mimic the earth’s: a rainforest, desert, savannah and its own miniature ocean. 

In addition, there is an area for growing crops or other plants which is now being used to test how cottonwood trees respond to different levels of carbon dioxide. Scientists say the research will provide insight into the effects of global warming. 

“Before the Department of Energy would reprogram funds to invest in Biosphere 2 or provide new funds for research projects, they require the scientific community to identify compelling scientific questions that can’t be addressed without a facility like Biosphere 2,” said Barry Osmond, president and executive director of the center, a 3.15-acre glass-and-steel domed complex northeast of Tucson. 

DOE officials also want to see a clear demonstration that the scientific community would use the facility if it was supported by the department, he said. 

“I think we got an abundant definition of those questions and indication that the community will participate,” Osmond said. 

Biosphere 2 has “considerable potential as a major facility at the frontier of global change science,” said Paul Rich of New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

Scientists who attended the conference will put together a report for the DOE. The paper will suggest how studies at the facility would help the department in its objectives. 

Osmond said the likeliest outcome would be some kind of partnership between DOE and Columbia, “because there’s no doubt that Columbia wants this to be a university campus.” 

It might be modeled after projects that support oceanographic research, he said. There also were discussions about construction of additional facilities for researchers at the complex, Osmond said. 

“We would use Biosphere 2 as the sort of controlled experimental device but would like to put it into the context of all the outdoor real-world experiments that one can do in this region.” 


On the Net: 

Biosphere 2: http://www.bio2.edu/ 

Energy Department: http://www.energy.gov/