UA Vice President for Innovation and College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz is also the director of Biosphere 2, the environmental science lab north of Oro Valley. On Saturday, April 22, Biosphere 2 will celebrate Earth Day with science talks, ladybug and hermit crab releases, local food offerings and a sunset concert by Calexico. The fun starts at 9 a.m. at Biosphere 2, at the intersection of Oracle Road and Biosphere 2 Road. This Q&A is edited and condensed from an interview originally broadcast on Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel.
Tell us a little bit about what we can expect at Biosphere 2 for Earth Day.
Earth Day corresponds with the 10 years that the University of Arizona has had Biosphere 2. So there's going to be a mixure of things that include Biosphere 2's history and future. It's going to be a festival environment all day long. In addition to food trucks and various people showing their wares, we will have a tent with speakers talking about things that are important to Tucson and important to the Biosphere. So in the morning, we're going to highlighting Tucson as an UNESCO city of gastronomy and restaurateur Janos Wilder will be giving a presentation. Gary Nabham will be giving a presentation. Starting at about noon, there will be panels that deal more specifically with what the Biosphere is and what it's going to be in the next 10 years. So there's going to be a panel on food, a panel on energy, a panel on water and a panel on the environment. That will go on until about 4, so people can come and listen to any of these panels or they can go and get ice cream or whatever else is going on out there. And at 4, there's something I'm really proud of: A part of the Biosphere has been rented out to a company called Civic Farms, which is doing what's called vertical farming. When they get going with production of food at the Biosphere, the food will then be sold at Whole Foods, both in Phoenix and Tucson. We'll have a groundbreaking for that and then we'll go and listen to Calexico, so what a day.
You've been managing Biosphere 2 for about a decade now. Talk a little bit about what you've been able to do out there.
The largest experiment that we've created out there is a thing called the Landscape Evolution Observatory, which is a grand experiment created by a combination of atmospheric scientists, hydrologists, ecologists and geologists. And that experiment is really to inform us of the fate of water in semi-arid environments as global climate change progresses—how much evaporates and how much goes into groundwater, how much is in run-off. All of that may sound a little boring, but it's absolutely critical if we are going to understand what is going to be happening to a particular place, and in particular, our place, Tucson, as the pattern of rain changes in the future because of global climate change.
You're going be giving a talk on the next 10 years at Biosphere 2. Give us a preview of what we're going to see out there in the upcoming decade.
If you look at the past 20 years of research at the Biosphere, it's all been about various parts of the environment. In the '90s, the research in the ocean showed that with a CO2 increase to 400 parts per million—which is what we have now—the oceans would acidify and the corals would die. That's exactly what is happening now, with the corals dying all over the oceans. There's a big debate over whether it's caused by CO2 or whether it's because of pollution. But the research at the Biosphere shows that only that level of CO2 is required to kill the corals and the pollution is just sort of adding to it. In the future, we want to look at the relationship of food safety and security, and the water availability, and energy availability as well, and the nexus of all these things throughout the world. The importance of that the relationship of water, energy and food is what we would, in some ways, call resiliency to global climate change.
Where is the planet in relation to climate change these days?
There is some good news and some bad news. The good news is, in some industrialized countries like the U.S., CO2 levels have been decoupled from GDP. There's always been an argument to keep economies going, there's a correlation with CO2, because it's energy in some ways, and a decrease with CO2 meant you wouldn't have growth in your industry. Some people have argued that. In the U.S., CO2 started plateauing last year even as the economy was expanding. So that's terrific news. The not-so-terrific news is that, as a world, we're still pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and the changes in global climate are becoming more and more evident and are, in some case, sort of worst-case scenarios in models that have been presented by scientists. So the amount of sea ice in the Arctic—now you can have shipping lanes, for example, which may be great in some ways but nobody expected that to happen as quickly as it's happening. The kinds of variabilities we see in climate were expected to happen later. Those are not good things and we can't sort of stop trying to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint, which is absolutely critical.
What did you think of the Trump administration's recent announcement that they would reverse what President Obama did with his clean power plan and efforts to move away from coal and toward renewable energy sources?
What's going with the EPA in general is a huge disappointment. The rest of the world—and most of the American population and basically every scientist—is recognizing that global climate change is real and that it's fueled by CO2, which is fueled by human activity these days. So it's a disappointment that we're going back. What makes it even more disappointing is that the economy on its own is kind of shifting. The price of natural gas now is such that having a coal plant, in many cases, is not economically worthwhile. So it's trying to put the brakes on whatever is already happening now. But in addition to that, the Clean Air Act, which is a way of making sure that we reduce the amount of, bluntly, asthma, and things of that sort, because of pollution, is going away. The Trump administration just says that it is overreach from the government to do this, but one has to question if it's overreach when you're trying to keep populations healthy.