by Jim Nintzel
Twenty years after the first crew was sealed inside its glass walls, the University of Arizona is set to be the new owner of Biosphere 2.
The UA will announce Monday that the giant terrarium, located on Oracle Road north of Catalina, will be given to the College of Science, which has been managing the facility for several years to conduct climate-change research.
Biosphere 2—which features different “biomes,” including a tropical rainforest, a grassland savannah, a mangrove wetland, a desert, and a small saltwater ocean and beach—was originally built as an experiment to keep a sealed environment for a century, but the effort was abandoned after the first two-year stint by a crew that entered the facility in 1991 came to an end.
Since then, Biosphere 2—which is owned by Texas billionaire Ed Bass—has had several managers, including Columbia University, which gave up its interest in the facility in 2003.
While it’s hard to pin a precise value on Biosphere 2 (there isn’t a comparable facility anywhere in the world), it cost more than $200 million to build. UA officials are estimating the facility is worth $100 million today.
The UA College of Science will receive 40 acres around Biosphere 2, including a conference center and a collection of casitas.
Bass’ Philecology Foundation will also give the UA a $20 million grant to cover the cost of running the facility in future years, according to UA sources.
TW covered the UA's work at Biosphere 2 in 2009:
Researchers are now planning their first large-scale experiment. They've cleared out the biome where Biospherians once grew their crops, and the now-bare concrete floor will soon be covered by experimental hillsides to better understand how water moves through the earth from mountains to rivers, says John Adams, Biosphere 2's assistant director for planning and facilities.
Once three hillsides have been created, researchers will pour rain onto them and use sensors to measure the movement of the water. After taking those measurements for a few years, they'll add vegetation and eventually start adjusting temperatures and CO2 levels.
"This will be an experiment that will be 10 years or longer, and you've got people who are soil scientists; you've got plant physiologists; you've got people who put together all these models and predictions of how things may or may not change if temperatures rise or CO2 levels increase," says Adams.
How water patterns will be altered as a result of climate change remains a mystery. Huxman says Biosphere 2 offers the chance for researchers from hydrology, ecology and atmospheric sciences to find new ways to collaborate on water studies.
"It's a little shocking that something that's so important to us doesn't have a stitched-together fundamental theory," Huxman says. "We understood how to split an atom and create an atomic bomb before we understood the physics of how water ascended a tree and evaporated into the atmosphere."
Visit the Biosphere 2 Web site here.