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Biosphere 2 and Lessons About Water

Biosphere Rain Forest

Biosphere Rain Forest

My recent visit to Biosphere 2 was fascinating and taught me so much about the water cycle and the importance of plants.  The image above is of the rain forest there–the only enclosed rain forest in the entire world.  Scientists are able to study what will happen to the rain forests if the temperature is raised and carbon dioxide is increased.  After visiting this place I am certain that plants are our best hope for surviving what we are doing to the earth and that we can learn so much from natural systems.  According to Joost van Haren, the scientist from the Netherlands who has been a climate researcher at Biosphere for over twenty years, rain forest plants adapt at higher temperatures better than we thought they would and can process the excess carbon dioxide we are pumping into the air up to a point.  However, it starts leveling off after awhile and because phosphorous and other nutrients have been stripped from the earth the plants in the rain forest reach a point where they cannot take any more co2.  The mix of plants will also be altered, because some plants can handle the excess stress while others cannot.  A graduate student working on leaves took us through the rain forest.  He told us some plants that can survive do so by emitting this gas that protects the leaf and enables it to contain more water.  However, the plants produce too much of this gas and the excess escapes into the atmosphere and this creates clouds.  I asked if perhaps the clouds would create water to compensate what we would be losing from evaporation from excess heat and he said possibly, although it is difficult to isolate all the effects because there are so many interactions.  What is clear is how important plants are in the cycle of water.  One of the things they can't study in Biosphere 2 is deforestation.  We simply cannot afford to keep stripping the earth of these live saving plants.

Everglades Mangroves in Biosphere 2

Everglades Mangroves in Biosphere 2

A plant they are very proud of and consider integral to producing a healthy ecosystem in Biosphere 2 is the mangrove.  These trees were brought from the Everglades and are thriving here.  They filter water, prevent soil erosion,  and provide habitats just as they do in Florida.  Though Biosphere 2 failed as a living experiment, in the sense that they weren't able to produce enough oxygen for the number of people who lived there for much longer than the two years they were contracted to reside there, it is a great success when you consider what they are able to test with respect to climate and water production and cycles.  Without plants, the climate in Biosphere 2 would cease to exist and this is a very important lesson.  They are essential for the production of water and for oxygen levels.

Healthy Biofilm, Papyrus Wetland, Biosphere 2

Healthy Biofilm, Papyrus Wetland, Biosphere 2

When I came to this Papyrus Wetland, I was instantly struck by the amount of healthy biofilm on the surface of the water. All the water here was produced from the small stream in the rain forest.  They were not able to use any chemical fertilizers in Biosphere 2, since it is totally enclosed and was originally completely sealed from the outside and the use of such chemicals would have poisoned the people living there.  Walking through Biosphere 2, I noticed the complete lack of pollution.  This healthy biofilm, which I only saw in Tate's Hell and the Matanzas River in Florida (and not nearly to this extent) created rich, loamy soil.  The soil is even healthier than what is found in the actual rain forests on the earth, according to the scientists.  I could smell the  fecundity created by these organic processes.  The contrast between the natural odors here and what I typically smell walking outside was dramatic and made me realize the harm we are creating to ecosystems everywhere.

Indoor Ocean, Biosphere 2

Indoor Ocean, Biosphere 2

This indoor ocean allows the scientists to study the effects of climate change, increased co2, and acidification on coral.  

Cacti

Cacti

They are also able to study cacti and how they hold water and what happens under higher temperatures with more carbon dioxide.

Egyptian Acacia Bark

Egyptian Acacia Bark

The bark on this tree was some of the most interesting, tactile bark I have ever seen. The acacia tree is prevalent in Egypt and along the Nile and the African Savanna.