When many people think of Biosphere 2, images from the early 90s come to mind.
Eight people were sealed inside the giant terrarium for two years. Their goal was to see if human life could be sustained long-term to eventually colonize another planet.
"The hope was that the vegetation in the Biosphere was going to control the atmosphere. That was a big deal thing and we failed, and what that tells us is how little we actually understand about how the Earth actually works," said Joaquin Ruiz, Dean of the University of Arizona's College of Science.
Since 2007, the massive research facility in Oracle has been taken over by the U of A.
It's open to the public seven days a week and offers a rare chance to see scientists at work in biomes from the rainforest to the ocean.
These days, climate change is under the microscope.
"The earth is getting warmer as a whole. We as scientists don't quite understand all of the consequences of those changes," said Ruiz.
Nearly all of the research projects currently underway at Biosphere 2 center around water. The largest is called the LEO project, or Landscape Evolution Observatory, which looks like three large mountain slopes covered in soil. They will show scientists how runoff from the rain eventually ends up in the river, helping to understand more about water, one of our most important resources.
Questions being researched include, "How is that water being absorbed into the soil and what happens when it's actually absorbed into the soil? How much drains down? How much doesn't drain down?" said John Adams, the Deputy Director of Biosphere 2.
The colossal petri dish may also tell us someday how the rainforest will behave if the world becomes drier and warmer.
"It's difficult to take the rain out of a rainforest before it actually happens, or dry it up. Inside Biosphere we've got a tropical community here and what we can do is take the rain out of it and look at how the system behaves," said Adams.
The controlled environment is also lending way for research about plastic polluting the oceans.
"We have a bacterial community that's very similar to that you'll find off of Scripps Pier in San Diego, and so what they're looking at is which bacteria are attacking the plastics and at what rate," said Adams.
Some questions answered at Biosphere 2 can't be answered anywhere else in the world, and now the university widely known for the Mars rover, mapping the moon and having the largest telescope in the world is now focused closer to home.
"Now we can do the kind of big science that we used to do in planetary sciences for our own Earth," said Ruiz.
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.
Tuesday, April 20 2010 11:21 PM EDT2010-04-21 03:21:00 GMT
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