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The University of Arizona Launches Major Scientific Research Initiative at Biosphere 2

The University of Arizona today announced a major new scientific initiative to tackle the grand challenges facing science and society, including global climate change, the fate of water and how energy travels through Earth's ecosystems.

The University will lease the 34.5-acre (14 hectare) Biosphere 2 campus in Oracle, Ariz. for a nominal annual fee to conduct such advanced research. A gift from the Philecology Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, in conjunction with other grants and gifts, will fully support the University’s research as well as the base costs of operating the Biosphere 2 facility for three years, with the potential for funding of up to 10 years.

"UA will develop Biosphere 2 into a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems and its place in the universe," said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of UA's College of Science. "The facilities and resources at this new campus will be an inspiring place for researchers to gather and to tackle problems that science and society will face now and in the future.

"At Biosphere 2, we will address not only the problems of our current condition, but also those of the 22nd century that are still below the horizon."

UA President Robert Shelton is excited by the potential that Biosphere 2 offers.

“The generous gift from the Philecology Foundation, founded by Edward P. Bass, substantially expands the University's ability to link teaching, scholarship and creativity to the needs of Arizona and our larger global community,” President Shelton said. “Biosphere 2 will provide our faculty and students exceptional opportunities to address major environmental challenges facing Arizona and the Southwest such as global climate change, sustainability of water resources and land-use change. UA excels at the collaborative, multidisciplinary approach these global scientific issues require."

Under the UA's management, Biosphere 2 will continue as a major regional attraction and also serve as a laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and a far-reaching public education center. B2 Earthscience, directed by UA Associate Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Travis E. Huxman, will address issues of global environmental change using a multidisciplinary approach. B2 Institute, directed by UA Regents' Professor of physics and optical sciences Pierre Meystre, will conduct interdisciplinary programs to tackle scientific "Grand Challenges."

In addition, the UA will operate the popular Biosphere 2 tours. From 1991-2007, the facility had 2.3 million visitors. Biosphere 2 will serve Arizona and the public through education and outreach at all levels -- K-12 and continuing through adults -- that highlights the exceptional research programs at the UA.

B2 Earthscience Director Huxman said, "As a research facility, Biosphere 2 is unique in its spatial scale. The facility provides us a bridge between our small-scale, controlled, laboratory-based understandings of earth processes and experiments in field settings where we cannot control all environmental conditions. Biosphere 2's size allows us to do controlled experimentation at an unprecedented scale.

"A unique aspect of this facility is its ability to support experiments that will provide us the missing link between laboratory and real world."

“I salute the University’s deep commitment to conduct research in the Biosphere that will advance our understanding of the Earth, its biosphere and the impact upon it," said Ed Bass, co-founder of Biosphere 2 and president of the Philecology Foundation. “Biosphere 2 was initially created as a tool to probe the essential environmental questions we must ask in the 21st century, and I look forward with great anticipation to what UA will discover.”

The controlled-environment facility, 3.14 acres (1.27 hectares) in area, is sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton (453,600 kg) welded stainless steel liner. Ninety-one feet (28 meters) at its highest point, it has 6,500 windows that enclose a volume of 7.2 million cubic feet (204,000 cubic meters) under glass.

One initial experiment addresses key interactions between plants and water. Within the facility, the researchers will build three hill slopes, each about 32 yards (30 meters) long and 22 yards (20 meters) wide, to test how water moves down, into and across the slopes.

"Then we will introduce plants and ask how having life on a landscape changes the behavior of water, both in the air and in the soil," Huxman said. "We are interested in how plants modify their environment -- how they change the amount of time a water molecule spends in the soil and how that affects the biogeochemical reactions that happen in soil only when it is wet."

The plants, grasses and shrubs, will be typical of the desert, grassland and savannah ecosystems that cover more than one-half of Arizona and about one-third of the Earth's total land area.

The Biosphere 2 facility will allow the researchers to control and measure what enters and leaves the huge experimental chamber. A large and sophisticated array of sensors deployed throughout the chamber's atmosphere and the hill slopes will monitor environmental factors, including water, carbon dioxide, temperature, trace gases and pH.

Inside, the team will control temperature and rainfall to mimic the environmental conditions right outside the chamber. Just outside the chamber, the researchers will build replicas of the indoor hill slopes and conduct the same experiments. Mimicking the local conditions inside the chamber will let the scientists compare the gigantic indoor controlled-conditions experiment with the hill slopes outside that are exposed to natural conditions. All of these experiments will be linked to existing research projects throughout the Southwest.

"Quantifying these processes is key knowledge for managing our natural resources in periods of uncertainty now and in the future," Huxman said.

The public will be able to watch the research as it unfolds, he said. "This is one of the only research facilities that will be completely open to the public. When people go on a tour, they won't just hear a wonderful description of the Biosphere 2’s history. They will be able to watch research in action and learn what is going on moment-to-moment."

The state-of-the-art Biosphere 2 campus is located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, 35 miles from the UA campus. UA will manage and operate the controlled-environment facility itself, along with three conference rooms that can seat from 40 to 120 participants, a suite of 36 dual-occupancy offices, and modern housing facilities in a “village” of 28 furnished three- to five-bedroom casitas with fully equipped kitchens. The campus is fully networked.

In the 1800s, the property was part of the Samaniego's CDO Ranch. After several changes of ownership, it became a conference center in the 1960s and 1970s, first for Motorola, then for the UA. Space Biospheres Ventures bought the property in 1984 and began construction of the current facility in 1986. Human missions 1 and 2 lasted from 1991-1994. In 1994, Decisions Investments Corporation took over the property and Columbia University managed it from 1996-2003. The property was sold June 4, 2007, to CDO Ranching & Development, L.P.

Mari N. Jensen | University of Arizona
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