Some scientists say finding solutions to Earth’s biggest environmental challenges calls for large-scale research. The research teams at Biosphere 2 have that opportunity and are utilizing the facility 30 miles north of Tucson to investigate questions about Earth science.
Hydrology researcher Peter Troch began working with Biosphere 2’s Landscape Evolution Observatory in 2007. His team is finishing the first year of its current experiment: examining the effects of drought on microbial communities in soil.
Troch’s group is collecting data and making observations from soil on three huge ramps beneath the Biosphere’s iconic glass-and-steel structure, which creates a greenhouse effect. It simulates the impact of climate change on the slopes.
“We are facing a crisis of feeding a growing population on Earth, while we are losing an enormous amount of soil through erosion,” said Troch. “So that imbalance of losing our arable soils where we can grow our crops for a growing population on Earth will bring us to a crisis within the next few decades.”
“We are facing a crisis of feeding a growing population on Earth, while we are losing an enormous amount of soil through erosion” — hydrology researcher Peter Troch
Troch’s team hopes to develop technology through science to turn degraded landscapes back into fertile soil where crops can again grow.
Ecology scientist Greg Barron-Gafford is in charge of the Biosphere’s agrivoltaics project. It examines the possibility of combining food production and energy generation by growing plants in the shadow of a solar panel array.
Barron-Gafford looked closely at why plants thrive in shaded areas, and discovered fruits and vegetables grew healthier and in greater quantities while protected by the array.
“Now, all of a sudden, we are talking about more food that goes from the field to the table,” said Barron Gafford. “We’ve been able to reduce the amount of water that we’re using, and that’s important for Arizona’s future, which is really going to be water-limited.”
Katie Morgan’s Biosphere ocean aims to uncover details about coral reefs, and how they can survive a warming ocean environment.
“We’ve got a heat exchanger. We can run hot water through the coils, and the salt water will run through these heated coils,” Morgan noted. “We can increase or decrease the temperature, depending on the temperature of the water we’re running through these coils. So, we have the control to simulate future environments.”
“We’ve been able to reduce the amount of water that we’re using, and that’s important for Arizona’s future, which is really going to be water-limited” — ecologist Greg Barron-Gafford
The Biosphere’s rainforest-under-glass is a startling departure from the Sonoran Desert environment surrounding it. Joost Van Haren is the scientist in charge of research there, using his background in biochemistry to answer questions about how tropical forests and plants respond to increased temperatures.
“Is it going to change their use of water, and the amount of water that is cycled through the ecosystem?” asked Van Haren. “What we can do here at Biosphere 2 is drought experiments, finding how the ecosystem responds once rainfall is cut out.”
The average relative humidity in the Biosphere rainforest is maintained at between 70 and 90 percent. According to Van Haren, this range approximates the humidity of rainforests in the Amazon Basin.
Artists say southern Arizona’s climate makes for great natural photography, and when the sky is clear and the air is pure, the images can be spectacular.
Arizona photographer John de Dios captures images at the Biosphere, and his work has appeared in National Geographic and other publications. “What makes Biosphere just a great place to photograph is that it’s five different biomes under a big glass dome,” he says. “There’s nowhere else on Earth where you can have these different habitats where you can travel to and photograph.”
The Biosphere concept of Earth-systems research is focused on changing environmental conditions in large scale, at a single location. In the Sonoran Desert, scientists continue their mission of predicting the planet’s future in a warming world.