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Biopshere 2 reopens rainforest after drought research

Updated: Jan. 16, 2020 at 10:36 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It's critical research that couldn't come at a better time.

With wildfires raging across Australia, following the tens of thousands of fires that devastated parts of the Amazon rainforest last fall, Arizona scientists are trying to learn more about droughts and how plants respond.

One of the longest, most intense research projects just wrapped up at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 is a decades-old research facility owned by the University of Arizona that opened in the 1980s. There, scientists can study the environment in a controlled space that mimics the climate and habitat seen all over the world.

Nearly four months ago, researchers closed the rainforest to the public and “stopped the rain” inside the Southwest’s most elaborate greenhouse.

“The questions are: how are the systems that we are so dependent on going to respond [to drought] and potentially change in the future?’” John Adams, the deputy director of Biosphere 2, said. “We just don’t know a lot. Biosphere 2 offers a really unique opportunity at an unprecedented scale to better understand the potential implications of things like a drought.”

Adams said what makes this experiment so unique is, unlike the real world, researchers can manipulate and control every aspect of the environment.

The experiment, primarily funded through a multi-million dollar grant from the European Research Council, involved 13 partners and more than 80 scientist. Some traveled from Austria, Germany and Switzerland to conduct the experiment in Oracle, Arizona bringing with them state-of-the-art equipment.

Scientists watched how carbon circulates through the ecosystem. They also tried to find out how plants communicate to each other in times of stress, collecting data through nearly two miles of tubing.

“Are they able to release certain types of volatile organic compounds, or fragrances, and do these fragrances in turn signal to other plants a drought is coming," Adams said.

Adams said they also looked at the root system and tried to find out if deeper-rooted trees and plants bring water closer to the surface for more shallow-rooted plants.

All this data can help scientists predict the outcome of changes to an environment outside Biosphere 2.

“Those models [we have] are only as good as the data we put into them,” Adams said. “Understanding how ecosystems respond [to things like drought] will give us better indicators of which species are going to survive, and which species are not. It will allow [leaders] to better prepare and head off some of the things like what we are seeing today.”

Adams said early results of the experiment may be released in the coming months.

The rainforest reopens to the public Saturday, Jan. 18. Tours that take guests through the rainforest start at 9 a.m. Biosphere 2 is located at 32540 Biosphere Road.

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