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Grant awarded to Landscape Evolution Observatory at Biosphere 2

Life on LEO
Posted at 6:17 AM, Nov 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-15 08:17:51-05

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded Biosphere 2's Landscape Evolution Observatory a $3.5 million grant to study how life grows in certain landscapes, particularly those impacted by fires or volcanic eruptions.

The Landscape Evolution Observatory or LEO is the world's largest laboratory experiment in the interdisciplinary Earth sciences and it's dedicated to understanding complex ecosystems. After years of planning, construction started in 2011 and took about 15 months to build.

Over the last five years, the scientists have observed how landscapes change without plant life other than moss and microbes. Now, the grant will allow the team to grow plants and make it a more complete ecosystem.

"It's a new laboratory where we can learn how to built ecosystems from scratch," Scott Saleska, University of Arizona and LEO's director, said. "There's nothing growing on it now but we just recieved a $3.5 million grant to help put life on LEO."

Saleska said the experiment helps shed light on the impacts of climate change on our ecosystem, especially in terms of water. He said the experiement helps them understand how landscapes work which will help us learn how to restore damaged landscapes.

"The idea is that this will give us the science to restore landscapes to recover mill tailings to mines and to deal with desertification and all the problems that are buffeting our globe from climate change," Saleska said.

Because LEO allows scientists to watch an ecosystem grow from scratch, Saleska said it's the key to fundamental science and fixing the future.

Leo consists of three steel 100 foot long structures inside glass domes at Biosphere 2 filled with crushed basalt rock, armed with over 1,800 sensors for observation. It mimics watershed in the natural world, which is the area of land where all water that drains goes to the same place like a lake or stream.

“We have rainfall sprinklers on here that create rain and one of the great fundamental questions for putting life on Leo or life on the planet is water," Saleska said. "And it's about learning how life interacts with water especially as water becomes more limited, as it is happening in Arizona because of climate change."

The new research will bring insight into the effects of the changing climate on the landscapes and even help tell astronauts how to grow crops on Mars.