Columbia to Manage Biosphere 2

Lamont-Doherty to Run Facility for Next 5 Years


Photograph: Edward P. Bass and President Rupp at Biosphere 2 last Thursday.


Columbia and Biosphere 2 announced Monday a five-year agreement under which Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will manage and direct the Biosphere's scientific, educational, and visitors center operations.

As part of the management agreement, the operations of Biosphere 2--the unique ecologically enclosed laboratory in the Arizona desert--will be integrated into the institutional science and education missions of Columbia.

The announcement was made by President Rupp and Edward P. Bass, entrepreneurial backer of the laboratory. Both hailed the move as a major initiative for scientific research and education to address the world's critically important environmental challenges.

"Columbia University is one of the few universities in the world capable of conducting research on the enormously complex environmental interactions that will shape human prospects in the 21st Century," said Rupp. "In this new partnership, through both educational and research programs, we will discover ways to sustain life and the quality of life on our increasingly stressed planet."

The Columbia/Biosphere 2 initiative will draw on the University's internal resources to create an unprecedented laboratory that will attract scientists from around the world to study global climate change, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. The new partnership is a natural evolution of a joint venture created between Columbia and Biosphere 2 eighteen months ago to form a science consortium that established the framework for a long-term science plan.

Currently, scientists from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Australian National universities, the Smithsonian Institution and others are working as part of the consortium on issues ranging from biogeochemistry to ecology.

As part of the initiative, the Biosphere 2 visitors center will be redesigned to create the world's first science education center devoted exclusively to how the earth works. There are also plans for projects including educational software, environmental "semesters abroad" at the Biosphere facility and intensive technical seminars. In addition, Columbia and Biosphere 2 will share rights to the commercial application of all new technologies and inventions.

"Columbia's leadership of Biosphere 2's science and education allows us to maximize the full potential created by the founders of this fabulous facility," said Bass. "Columbia enters as essentially the second generation program, building upon the creative vision of Biosphere 2 as a tool to investigate difficult issues in the management of earth's resources, the planning for earth's future, and the education of future generations."

The scale, engineering sophistication and biological diversity of Biosphere 2 allows the apparatus to be manipulated to test responses of plants and corals to a variety of conditions that the earth might experience in the future. A promising start has been made with experiments already conducted to observe responses of certain plants to changes in CO2 levels. Additional experiments will commence in early December under Columbia's direction that will explore how changing environmental conditions, including changes in CO2, might affect the vegetation of desert, rainforest, marsh and coral reef ecosystems. These experiments could provide clues as to how large regions of the planet will respond in the next 100 years to humanly induced changes to the earth's climate. The results of these experiments can inform decision-makers and influence public policy and economic strategies that will help ensure a sustainable future.

"The intellectual lure of the Biosphere is tremendous," said Wallace S. Broecker, Newberry Professor of Geological Sciences at Columbia and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. "The big advantage of a sealed experimental system like this one is that we can assess the daily growth of plants in Biosphere 2 and see how it changes with temperature or light or CO2 content of the air or other factors. We can monitor CO2 uptake by the plant community as a whole as well as by individual plants, and we can monitor the water use by the whole community. We can create whole futures inside Biosphere 2 and develop ways to gain some control over what is otherwise an unknown future."

"Columbia has proven to be a great partner over the last year and a half in refocusing Biosphere 2's science and education programs," said Stephen K. Bannon, acting chief executive officer of Biosphere 2. "This unique university coupled with this unique apparatus will be a prototype for studying earth in the future."

On Aug. 15, 1994, Biosphere 2, located in Oracle, Arizona, and Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, located in Palisades, N.Y., together formed the Biosphere 2 Science Consortium of eminent scientists from major universities, research institutes and national laboratories to create a long-term science plan for the facility.

The partnership is the latest example of Columbia's efforts to foster multi-disciplinary thinking--linking the expertise of social, physical and biological scientists with public policy, economic strategy and long-range global planning. Over the last two years, Columbia has instituted the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, the Earth Policy Institute, and, with Rockefeller University, the Laboratory of Populations.

Lamont-Doherty, directed by John C. Mutter, is one of the world's leading institutions in the study of earth's complex systems. Biosphere 2 is the first tightly sealed, closed ecological laboratory ever built.


Columbia University Record -- November 17, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 10