UA plans high-profile ecological research at Biosphere 2by La Monica Everett-haynes on Jun. 26, 2007, under Education, Local
Research on ecology, global warming focus of huge project
The University of Arizona is poised to pull Biosphere 2 out of its sleepy state and begin exclusive ecological research and draw high-profile names to southern Arizona.
And it’s getting millions of dollars for it.
Officials on Tuesday announced a move to transform the site once again into a viable research center.
UA intends to take over Biosphere 2 by Sunday and have researchers on site by year’s end, said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science. UA will also manage Biosphere 2 tourism operations and run its tours. It will keep the Biosphere 2 name.
The university expects to use the huge complex, 35 miles north of Tucson near Oracle, to seek a better understanding of Earth’s ecological processes and global climate change. It intends for the site to become world-renowned for such research while improving science education.
The controlled scientific research will be relevant into the next century, Ruiz said.
“It will show how exciting science is and how important science can be to the way we live,” he said.
The university has formed B2 Earthscience to head experiments at the site and will operate a think tank, the B2 Institute, which is expected to lure experts from all over the world for conferences and seminars.
B2 Earthscience will be similar to other UA interdisciplinary science divisions such as the Arizona Research Laboratories and the BIO5 Institute. Work at Biosphere 2 will involve researchers in hydrology, soil and water science, ecology and evolutionary biology, and other areas.
The project means some of the world’s great thinkers in the area of conservation and climate would develop ties to the region, UA officials interviewed for this article said.
Other recent events should help Biosphere 2 and its nearby area evolve into an active community and prominent research site, the UA officials said.
Biosphere 2 and nearly 1,700 surrounding acres were sold June 4 for $50 million to CDO Ranching & Development LP of Texas, said Jerry A. Hawkins, vice president of CB Richard Ellis, an international real estate company that brokered the sale.
The site has zoning approval from Pinal County for 1,550 residential units and a 200-room resort, but construction won’t begin for at least two years, Hawkins said.
Details of who will operate the resort and what the area will look like haven’t been determined. Land planning and design are under way, Hawkins said.
UA will lease from CDO Biosphere 2′s terrarium and some neighboring buildings for $100 annually, UA President Robert N. Shelton said, and UA already has $30 million to get plans off the ground and to pay for 10 years of its annual operating costs.
The funds are coming from the Philecology Foundation in Texas, a product of Texas billionaire and Biosphere 2 builder Edward P. Bass.
The upfront money will allow UA to upgrade parts of Biosphere 2, fund new research projects and cover the annual operations bill of about $1.3 million over the next 10 years, Ruiz said.
The first major experiment has been selected and will last for several years. Scientists will test ways water interacts with plants, grasses and shrubs typical of deserts, savannahs and grassland areas, Ruiz said.
This will help researchers to have a stronger sense of how water is lost, how much the region can expect to have years from now and what vegetation will survive.
“This information is valuable to policymakers worried about what happens to water, to atmospheric scientists figuring out how to predict climate and, broadly, those who are trying to predict what will happen in the future,” Ruiz said.
Other projects have not been selected. UA will soon ask researchers to submit project requests and use the initial funding as seed money to get the “most interesting projects” off the ground, Ruiz said.
The officials said UA and its researchers will be in a unique situation because Biosphere 2 offers a space unlike any other.
“It’s a very different kind of research. It could not be done in the current research facility,” said Vicki Chandler, BIO5 Institute director.
It comes down to the site’s sheer size and the ability to more aptly control conditions, said Chandler, who is on the B2 Institute’s advisory board.
Some of the officials interviewed said the site may eventually allow UA to introduce residential groups, new products, spin-off companies and develop new branches of research.
“We could be addressing really important problems in a whole new way. There is the potential for things unforeseen,” said Leslie Tolbert, UA’s vice president for research.
“We don’t begin to understand all of the nuances or interconnections that are important in global warming, but we’re going to understand the impacts,” Tolbert said. “We need lots more information, and this gives us a lab to ask those questions and understand the issues so important to society.”
Despite the giant terrarium’s past, marred by litigation, alleged mismanagement and more recently declining tourism, UA officials and others are confident that another failure is not pending.
The site was initially built to study creating a self-sustaining environment in which all oxygen, food and water were provided by biological processes. It housed two science teams between 1991 and 1994.
The idea of being sealed with no outside assistance was quickly abandoned when oxygen had to be pumped in because chemical reactions in Biosphere 2′s building materials were consuming oxygen faster than plants inside could produce it. The initial research effort ended in disarray, with accusations of mismanagement among the researchers and administrators.
“The kinds of problems the Biosphere had resulted in part because of a disconnect with what was being done there,” Tolbert said.
It was meant to be a for-profit enterprise with ecotourism paying for the research. That aspect of the operation never took off.
The officials said UA’s presence will be different than that of Columbia University, which managed Biosphere 2 from 1996 to 2003, when it abruptly ended its partnership with the complex’s owner.
As part of the new effort, UA will offer educational opportunities to K-12 students and teachers and UA students, partially to enhance science education here, the officials said.
“We’ll be chugging along with the Biosphere for decades,” Ruiz said.
Researchers will be responsible for pulling in additional funds to help cover research. Shelton said, “It’s not a freebie.”
Charlotte Romo, who was part of the second crew to enter the Biosphere 2 in 1994, was pleased to hear of UA’s involvement.
“It felt like the Biosphere 2 was a beloved old pet you left in the care of someone else and felt like it was being neglected,” said Romo, who lives in Hawaii.
“I want to see it used to its full potential,” she said, adding that UA is rightfully studying ecological sustainability issues.
UA will have to be careful not to “let the politics go sour,” she said.
Sources: University of Arizona, Tucson Citizen, Gannett News Service and Associated Press archives
Biosphere 2 gallery
Universtiy of Arizona launcehed a Major Research Initiative at Biosphere 2 Tuesday morning. Several of the attedees were given a tour of the facility after the press conference.
Producer: Renee Bracamonte and Francisco Medina
BIOSPHERE 2 TIMELINE
● 1984: Space Biospheres Ventures buys the 250-acre future site of Biosphere 2. The site had been a conference center for Motorola and later for UA. Construction on what would become Biosphere 2 began in 1986. The owners chose the name because they consider Earth biosphere 1.
● April 26, 1985: The Tucson Citizen reports that Carl Hodges, then-director of UA’s Environmental Research Laboratory, announced that a “revolutionary, self-contained ‘biosphere’ habitat” would be built near Oracle. Initially, the site built by Space Biospheres Ventures was pegged to help researchers figure out ways to explore and settle other planets, such as Mars.
● July 1989: Designing Biosphere 2 begins. The biosphere was supposed to a be a for-profit enterprise with a hotel and restaurants on the grounds and visitors paying entrance fees to see the biosphere and its occupants. Ecotourism was supposed to support the facility and pay for its research.
● Sept. 26, 1991: The first crew enters Biosphere 2 for two years, living and working in “Noah’s Ark,” a 2.5-acre environment containing plants, animals and insects. The biosphere contains climactic regions meant to mimic Earth’s, including a desert, a rain forest and an ocean.
● January 1993: Oxygen is pumped into Biosphere 2 because levels declined to the point where the crew was fatigued and had difficulty sleeping.
● Feb. 15, 1993: Tucson Citizen reports that an independent scientific committee formed to review the work at Biosphere 2 was disbanding because of problems with cooperation with Space Biosphere Ventures.
● Sept. 26, 1993: Eight Biosphere 2 crew members – four women and four men – leave the terrarium after a two-year experiment.
● March 6, 1994: About 500 people arrive at ceremonies for the second Biosphere 2 mission. The seven-member crew – five men and two women – would remain inside from 120 days to one year conducting ecological experiments.
● March 25, 1994: Tucson Citizen reports that former Biospherians Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum sue Biosphere 2 in U.S. District Court for overtime and $10,000 bonuses they said they didn’t get.
● April 4, 1994: A small amount of damage is reported after someone attempts to sabotage Biosphere 2, breaking the site’s atmospheric seal by opening doors. This comes days after Edward Bass obtains a court order to restrict the Space Biospheres Ventures president, CEO and others from running the site. Former Biospherian Abigail K. Alling later admits to breaking the seal on purpose, saying the biosphere is dangerous.
● 1994: Decisions Investments takes over the property.
● 1996: Columbia University begins managing Biosphere 2 and conducting research, but vacates the space in 2003.
● June 5: Biosphere 2 and 1,700 surrounding acres are sold to a Texas home builder.
● June 26: The University of Arizona announces it will lease Biosphere 2 for 10 years to conduct research and run tours.