The Biosphere 2 Center:
Loss of Biodiversity Within the Marsh Biome (Mangrove Estuary)
by Michael Aaron Gallagher
Winner of an Honorable Mention Louise Wetherbee Phelps Writing Award

 

Photo: Courtesy of Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center

 

From the writer: In the early 1990’s, when I first learned of the "biospherians" and their work in Arizona, I began to dream of one day being involved in a project of that magnitude. My journey inside the Biosphere 2 Center allowed me to work with scientists and further my understanding of biodiversity and civilizations. When Dr. Phelps issued the white paper assignment, I was excited by the opportunity to assemble the research I had conducted and share my knowledge of an important but often ignored environmental issue.

From the teacher, Louise Phelps: Mike made use of research, conducted during an earlier visit to the Biosphere 2 Center, to write this eloquent appeal for restoring biodiversity to the neglected Marsh Biome. He makes effective use of the conventions of white papers to ground his advocacy in a solidly researched, authoritative analysis, featuring crisp organization, effectively chosen visuals, and a document design that is both functional and attractive.

From the editor, Randall Monty: Immediate points for throwing conventional essay writing out the window. Or, rather, out the environmentally controlled doors. The Biospehere 2 staff could use someone like Gallagher on staff. Who knows, maybe someday we'll need to grow shellfish on the moon.

The Biosphere II Center

Oracle, Arizona

1.0 Introduction

This white paper explores the loss of biodiversity within the Marsh Biome of Biosphere 2. The material presented provides background information on the Center itself as well as data regarding the creation of the Marsh Biome. It will then use this foundation as a starting point for analyzing the management techniques that have jeopardized the stability of the system. Using the research conducted in a 1998 study for Columbia University’s Earth Systems Field School, it will offer management corrections and improved stewardship techniques in order to demonstrate the importance of system stability and biodiversity within an artificial ecosystem.

Based on research conducted in 1998, a review of the internal documents of the Biosphere 2 Center regarding species implantation, and recent developments in biome management, this white paper will examine the following:

 

2.0 Behind Closed Doors

The History of the Center

Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Biosphere 2 Center is located in the Sonora Desert outside of Oracle, Arizona. It was constructed in 1991 by Space Biospheres Ventures, a private scientific corporation. Amidst rumors that the project had ties to the U.S. Government, which was allegedly planning to use it as a prototype for a planetary spacestation, it began its operations as a controversial, top-secret facility that housed the "biospherians." Although the center was designed to be a self-sufficient artificial world, the spaceframe gradually became an unstable environment for human habitat. Space Biospheres Ventures later abandoned the project and it became a prize academic asset for Columbia University, which currently uses the Center for research and interactive study.

The Structure

The Biosphere 2 Center contains six biomes within its three-acre spaceframe. It also houses a human habitat, an interactive visitor’s center, gift shop, state-of-the-art laboratories, a habitat library, and the Command Room of Biosphere Operations. Until recently, most of the center has been inaccessible to the public.

 

The Six Biomes

Rainforest

Coral Reef

Agriculture

Desert

Savanna

Marsh

Each of the six biomes is located within the spaceframe, allowing the Biosphere Operations Team to access data from the sensors within a particular area and simultaneously monitor critical gas levels (including CO2) and the temperature of the air and water within the spaceframe (Finn, 1). In addition to the research compiled by the biome managers, independent teams are often permitted to conduct studies within a particular area. In recent years, research and management groups have particularly favored certain biomes. As a result, others have begun to deteriorate and the stability of the entire system is being threatened.

The Marsh Biome

Of the six biomes, the subtropical estuarine ecosystem or the Marsh Biome of the Center is perhaps one of the most complex and neglected regions. It is divided into freshwater and saltwater areas. The amount of rainfall, available light, and CO2 levels is carefully monitored from the Command Room of Biosphere Operations.

 

3.0 The Design of the Mangrove Estuary

The Marsh biome is subdivided into six sections. (See Diagram 3.0) Each area contains a unique display of species diversity.

Drawing of the Marsh

Diagram 3.0

Section 6:

Fringing Red Mangrove

Section 5:

Oyster Bay

Section 4:

Black Mangrove

Section 3:

Salt Marsh

Section 2:

Oligohaline Marsh

Section 1:

Freshwater Pond

  

 

3.1 Species Transplantation

When the Center was originally constructed, it was stocked with organisms and other physical matter obtained near the Everglades National Park in Florida. All of the samples were then carefully transported to Arizona (Finn, 6). The following organisms were among the more than 250 species transplanted into the marsh system: (Finn, 6)

Transplanted Organisms

Mangroves

Crabs

Shrimp

Fish

Other Species

The species were not uniformly distributed across the six sections because there is a salt gradient, and many of the organisms would not be able to survive in every area. In addition to the organisms that were intentionally brought into the center, local colonies of ants, cockroaches, and a small population of birds mysteriously emerged in the biomes. As a result, they are often observed in the Marsh even though it is not their natural habitat.

Gradually, the transplanted species began to die off, and the diversity within the region suffered a noticeable decline. Certain species were able to thrive in the absence of others because of their "hardy" characteristics and a lack of population controls.

3.2 System Stability and Interaction

The ability of the organisms to interact with each other and the chemical reactions that form a complex web of communication between each section is limited because of the narrow gaps in the walls dividing them.

Waterflow between the areas is also limited by the design of the biome to inhibit salt-water from contaminating the freshwater regions. As a result, the freshwater pond overflows into the oligohaline marsh and moves toward the ocean, rather than away from it.

There are also several other factors that contribute to the unique structure of the artificial ecosystem. For example, other biomes are in close proximity to the Marsh, including the Desert, Savanna, and Ocean. Because of their location and a lack of distinct barriers, there may be unwanted communication or species movement in or out of the system. Not only does the presence of foreign life affect the Marsh, it can also damage the ecological health of the region. Furthermore, even the chemical composition of the water and the waterflow between sections can alter its basic characteristics.

4.0 The Study

In 1998, a group of students in Columbia University’s Earth Systems Field School conducted a study on the Marsh Biome from inside the Biosphere 2 Center. The experiments involved collecting data in each of the six sections of the Mangrove estuary. The group tested pH, water hardness, dissolved oxygen concentration, and collected live specimens to chart the diversity of each region (Green et al, 1).

 

Note: Their shells are made of CaCO3, which explains the elevated levels.

4.1 The Threat to Species Diversity

"Weather prediction is absolutely impossible. The reason is that the behavior of the system is sensitively dependent on initial conditions… tiny differences become amplified… Chaos theory says two things. First, that complex systems like weather have an underlying order. Second, the reverse of that — that simple systems can produce complex behavior."

- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

When we examine the behavior of a natural ecosystem we can clearly observe the complexity of it, and its reliance on ordinary processes. Likewise, an artificial system no matter how elaborately designed will also be affected by variations in its most fundamental components.

The structure and stability of the Marsh Biome itself relies heavily on the interactions between organisms and the communication channels between it and the larger Biosphere. The attempt to simplify the equation, by reducing the scale of the model and altering the methods by which the regions can interact, did nothing but prove that a simple biological system is capable of finding a way to evolve.

The results of the study, along with current information that suggests that the Marsh continues to suffer a significant loss of biodiversity and management neglect, indicate that natural selection has been artificially enhanced. In such cases where populations of organisms are exposed to harsh, unnatural conditions, species extinction is inevitable. The removal of mechanical devices intended to circulate the water between regions is yet another example of tampering with nature and forcing it to conform.

By removing the artificial circulation mechanisms, the communication between divisions is jeopardized and the harmful effects of poor design and control are enhanced. Consequently, the mangrove estuary is no longer an accurate replica of an authentic wetland.

In order to be successful, the artificial marsh must closely resemble a subtropical estuarine ecosystem. Currently, because of the design and maintenance of the system and the lack of species representation, the Marsh Biome will continue to implode.

5.0 Future

The stability of an artificial world depends on how closely it resembles a self-sustained, evolving ecosystem. Because the Center is a small-scale replica of several natural habitats, it needs to be closely monitored to ensure that the exaggerated effects of natural processes do not destroy the delicate infrastructure and create a harsh, uninhabitable environment.

For years, scientists have closely monitored the rainforest, ocean, and agriculture biomes within the Biosphere 2 Center. Unfortunately, the Marsh continues to be neglected by research teams. Despite the importance of each region to the success of the larger project, the lack of public support, scientific interest, and funding for experiments in the mangrove wetlands have significantly injured the biodiversity within the model.

5.1 Management Corrections

Once we have clearly defined the problems with the current model, we can begin to address some of the contributing factors and develop solutions to correct the balance of this delicate infrastructure. By truly understanding the role of outside manipulation and the interaction of organisms and micro-systems within the wetland model we can solve the decline in biodiversity. Based on the data, and an analysis of current trends within the Marsh, the following recommendations and current theories are imperative to the improved management of the system.

Establishing Control Mechanisms

First, detailed management procedures need to be put into place, including protocols to address instability and extinction. Furthermore, it is important to collect data from this region and allow biome managers to closely monitor and study the Marsh.

Redesigning the System

Second, the model needs to be gradually redesigned and further stabilized. The project should be completed in several phases in order to prevent chaos within the system.

The Possibilities of Tomorrow

With the right approach, combining integrated management with scientific study, Biome Managers will be able to move from slowing the spread of the problem to eliminating it. The Biosphere 2 Center has the potential to go beyond a functioning, self-sustained system. Perhaps if the individual systems were stabilized, the Center could take on a new role as a haven for endangered life. However, in order for the project to achieve its intended purpose it must first restructure Biomes like the artificial marsh to more closely mimic natural ecosystems. Only then can the Biosphere 2 Center prevent artificial species extinction and the loss of biodiversity within the Marsh.

 

References

 

 

Illustrations

 

 


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