Big Science at Biosphere 2

April 24, 2014

As associate director of K-12 education at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 facility, Matt Adamson gets to work with students and educators of all ages. Join us as Adamson takes us on a tour of this unique facility and explains some of the history, the community connections and the big science going on at Biosphere 2.

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In Matt Adamson’s words:

Biosphere 1 is our Earth. Biosphere 2 is meant to be a model of Biosphere 1, this little envelope of material, water, atmosphere, plants, all of the things that sustain life on Earth. Time-Life Books named it one of the fifty must-see wonders of the world. Where else on Earth in the space of three acres can you see a tropical salt water ocean, a rainforest biome, a savanna biome, a salt water marsh, and coastal fog desert?

This place was built by private funders back in the late 80s early 90s. Motivated by the Apollo space mission, their thought was, we’ve gotten to the moon, the next step is living on the moon, living on Mars, living on other bodies in the solar system, so they really wanted to develop the technology that would allow us to do that.

That original experiment that had what are referred to as “biosphereans” living inside was from 1991 to 1994. The University of Arizona now owns Biosphere 2. Our researchers and students are continuing to use it as a laboratory for doing BIG science. Biosphere 2 lets us bridge the gap between the lab and the very complex real world, and we have enough space to study complexity evolving in time.

We can literally raise the temperature in this controlled environment and observe what happens. Do the trees produce more or less CO2? That kind of science is vital right now as our planet faces the consequences of global warming.

The Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, is building these three gigantic hill slopes under the Biosphere 2 dome. Each 100-foot-long slope will be covered with two million pounds of soil and embedded with nearly two thousand sensors. We call it a ten-year study of the terrestrial water cycle. There are many things about it that we’re attempting to learn about it with this big tool.

Big field-scale science is only one of our missions. Our second mission is to increase public scientific literacy by inviting the public to engage with researchers and learn about how these experiments will impact our future.

Every year, over 100,000 people visit Biosphere 2. Not only do they tour the facility, but they get to take part in research. Qualified scuba divers help us with the census of creatures living in our ocean. And yet more visitors help us collect data on our green roofs project.

How are we going to live in the arid southwest over the next 50-100 years? If we don’t have a good understanding of water resources, are we going to move to solar and other alternative forms of energy, and really, that’s what makes Biosphere 2 an outstanding research venue for the University of Arizona, and really, the whole state of Arizona.                     

Learn more about Biosphere 2 and how you can take a tour “under the glass” at