SCIENCE:

No need to pray for rain at Biosphere 2, where old reputation has been washed away

ORACLE, Ariz. -- Any moment now, it's going to start raining. At least, that's the plan.

Inside one of the massive greenhouse structures that constitute Biosphere 2, University of Arizona geosciences professor Stephen DeLong has turned the black valves that regulate the water flow in the new Landscape Evolution Observatory.

"I ran it this morning," DeLong, the program's lead scientist, says to one of the dozen or so reporters on hand for a media preview ahead of the project's formal dedication yesterday.

But it proves to be a momentary hiccup, as the system kicks in and sprinkler heads unleash a downpour onto one of three identical lime-green steel structures, which weigh in around 900 metric tons each and are filled with hundreds of sensors buried beneath specially ground basalt.

The artificial rainfall is the first public deployment of the LEO project, which the University of Arizona aims to make the new centerpiece of Biosphere 2, the more than two-decade-old facility 40 miles northeast of Tucson that it took ownership of last year.

"Our philosophy here is that this really should be a national laboratory," Executive Dean of the Colleges of Letters, Arts and Science Joaquin Ruiz told Greenwire.

While the once-controversial facility will continue to offer public tours -- it draws around 100,000 visitors annually -- Ruiz, who also serves as Biosphere 2's director, envisions the center eventually being utilized much like large telescope observatories, attracting researchers and scientists from other universities and organizations.

"You can imagine it as a telescope, where people from any institution that has a bright idea that requires the scale of the Biosphere, that would be either LEO or it could even be the ocean ... they would come here and do it," Ruiz said.

University researchers acknowledge that drawing more projects to Biosphere 2, to the new LEO project as well as other research facilities, would also help to fund the massive center.

Built in the late 1980s by Texas businessman Ed Bass, whose fortunes stem in part from oil and gas investments, the Biosphere and surrounding land were sold to a home developer group in 2007.

But the company donated the research center to the university in 2011, and Bass' own Philecology Foundation provided a $20 million gift to operate the facility and fund research.

While the National Science Foundation supports some research activities at the center, Ruiz said he would like to see additional public-private partnerships.

"There should be philanthropy, there should be mining companies interested in what is happening in reactions in the subsoil, but there also should be skin in the game by our government," Ruiz said, highlighting the potential for projects backed by NSF as well as NASA and the Department of Energy.

The facility earned a reputation early on as a boondoggle -- an experiment in 1991 to test a "sealed system" simulating Earth's ecology and populated by seven scientists failed within days when one participant needed medical care, and later crops failed to flourish and oxygen had to be vented in after carbon dioxide levels rose to unacceptable levels. And it received unwanted headlines again when Columbia University dropped out of a contract to manage the facility in 2003.

But its current owners assert there is little concern that history could sway researchers from utilizing the facility in the future.

"Sensationalism is one of the things we all gravitate toward," Biosphere 2 Assistant Director John Adams told Greenwire, referring to the early Biosphere experiments -- and the media coverage that ensued. "Sometimes science isn't as glamorous as we would like."

Ruiz likewise acknowledged the Biosphere 2's early failures but pointed to successful research conducted during Columbia University's eight-year tenure that began in 1996, including studies on the impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on coral reefs.

"Incredible research has been happening at the Biosphere for a long time," Ruiz said. "When we accepted the gift of the Biosphere, we were incredibly worried about the reputation the Biosphere had. In the first few years, we were concerned about how quickly, how fast we could actually try to change the public perception. ... It has probably, in our view, taken us about four years to change the majority of the perception of fellow scientists about the power of the biosphere for modern ecological research. I'm not worried about it at all anymore."