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Biosphere 2 bubble burst

Next month, Columbia University will relinquish its ties to Biosphere 2. The glass bubble in Oracle, Ariz., was once a visionary Earth atmosphere with eight terranauts living inside its confines. More recently, Columbia faculty and undergraduate students from a variety of institutions conducted research on its multiple ecosystems.

A dome in the desert blooms and fades away? No longer under Columbia University's management, Biosphere 2 is up for grabs. Photo courtesy of Columbia University/Biosphere 2 Center.

From its inception, Biosphere 2 was plagued with problems, the largest of which was a cement foundation that sucked oxygen out of the supposedly closed system. Its forests, deserts, and savannah played host to unwanted ant infestations, in addition to other plaguing issues. But researchers found the controlled ecosystems useful for several experiments after Columbia University took over the operations in January of 1996, in partnership with the biodome's owner, Decisions Investments Inc., and founder-billionaire Edward P. Bass.

Conducted in the midst of a steady stream of tourists visiting the site, successful research included a multiyear coral reef ecosystems study in Biosphere's small ocean, as well as a study of changes in plant growth under elevated carbon dioxide conditions (using cottonwood in the climate-controlled forest).

Biosphere 2's cottonwood forest; the closed-off ecosystem allowed scientists to experiment with plant growth and varying carbon dioxide levels. Photo courtesy of Columbia University/Biosphere 2 Center.

The two managing parties split ways in September, when Decisions Investments settled a lawsuit against Columbia for breach of contract. The university had retracted promised funding earlier this year, while it reconsidered the role of Biosphere 2 in its educational mission. Seven years remained of its 14-year contract.

Though Biosphere 2's future remains uncertain, 56 students from 19 universities, most from Columbia and Barnard College in New York, will be able to complete one last semester at the facility.

Naomi Lubick

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