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Arizona’s Biosphere 2 to investigate changes in oceans, rainforests, crops

(Biosphere 2 Photo)
LISTEN: Arizona's Biosphere 2 to investigate changes in oceans, rainforests, crops

PHOENIX — Biosphere 2, a massive research facility in southern Arizona, will soon be used to investigate changes in Earth’s oceans, rainforests and crops.

“We’re going to start other experiments in the ocean,” Biosphere 2 director Joaquin Ruiz said. “These experiments will be: What kind of corals can we actually have in the ocean that will survive higher temperatures? Corals are taking a beating right now.”

Ruiz said the decision to test what could happen to the ocean in the middle of the Arizona desert was made because the Biosphere’s carbon dioxide levels once reflected today’s world.

In the 1990s, the carbon dioxide concentration was 400 parts per million, a figure that would raise ocean acidity and kill off coral.

“That’s exactly what’s happening today,” he said.

Tropical coral reefs are considered the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, sheltering and feeding thousands of species. According to the website secore.org, the rise in ocean temperature over the past 30 years has caused a 50 percent die-off of corals.

Some scientists estimated 90 percent of the remaining corals could die within the next century.

Another experiment will involve drought, the Amazon rainforest and how well the rainforest will continue to take in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“How much can you beat on a rainforest, before it dies, is the question,” Ruiz said.

A similar experiment in the 1990s showed higher carbon dioxide levels cause the trees to respond differently.

“The rainforests stop taking [carbon dioxide],” Ruiz said. “In fact, the plants were so stressed they started emitting greenhouse gases.”

The Amazon rainforest covers 550 million hectares. It’s known as the world’s largest carbon dioxide sink.

Worldwide, forests take up almost 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.

A third class of experiments will study what food crops can survive with little water.

“We’re going to be feeding 8 billion people soon,” Ruiz said. “There’s going to be less availability of water in many areas.”

The University of Arizona has owned Biosphere 2 since 2011. It recently received a $30 million dollar endowment to keep the lights on and water running. The money came from one of Biosphere 2’s original investors and researchers.

It’s a 3.14-acre structure originally built as an artificial closed ecological system and remains the largest closed system ever created.

It was only used twice as a closed-system experiment: once from 1991 to 1993, and the second time from March to September 1994. Both attempts ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animals and plants and management issues.