The federal government is jumping into Biosphere 2, the giant greenhouse in the Arizona desert. Today--during his last day on the job--Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson signed an agreement with Columbia University that could make Biosphere 2 a Department of Energy (DOE) "national user facility." DOE will pitch in $700,000 over the next 2 years to help Columbia shape future plans for Biosphere 2 and explore the possibility of using it for DOE's own research program.
Texas billionaire Edward Bass built the 1.3-hectare, $200 million greenhouse in 1991 to be a sealed, self-sufficient mini-ecosystem capable of supporting eight people for 2 years. That experiment failed when bacteria in the soil consumed more oxygen than expected, killing off plants and animals and sickening the residents. In 1996 Columbia University took over the facility with the goal of turning it into a laboratory for studying ecosystems and their response to climate change (Science, 22 May 1998, p. 1183). Last year, Columbia extended its lease agreement with Bass to 2010.
Refitting the facility for research has been difficult. Scientists have struggled to control and monitor gas levels and temperature in the various "biomes," including a mini-rainforest, ocean, marsh, and desert. But the situation has improved and the agreement with DOE is evidence that the facility "has proven itself experimentally," says Columbia's Executive Vice Provost Michael Crow.
A DOE official says that while the department "is not prepared to start sending scientists to Biosphere 2 to do research," the partnership will allow the agency to get to know the facility's capabilities, and see if they could be used in DOE studies of climate change, carbon sequestration, and atmospheric chemistry. Ongoing projects at Biosphere 2 include research on the impact of increasing carbon dioxide levels on coral reefs and forests.