A new initiative is underway to breathe life back into the 700,000-gallon ocean tank at Biosphere 2. The new ocean at Biosphere 2 will provide a glimpse into the sea that's closest to Southern Arizona – the Gulf of California, which stretches for a thousand miles from the mouth of the Colorado River to Mazatlan on the mainland of Mexico.

The original "ocean" was one of several habitats intended to sustain a crew of scientists living and working inside the Biosphere 2 dome isolated from the outside world. When the "enclosed missions" ended in 1994, the fragile ecology of the ocean habitat collapsed. The corals died and algae and bacterial mats took over, crowding out the reef.  

Of all the world's deserts, the Sonoran Desert stands out with its unparalleled richness and diversity of plants and animals. Yet, few realize that this diversity is in large part due to the presence of a sea just south of Arizona. Without the Gulf of California, there would be no monsoon clouds bringing the rains to the parched desert in the summer months, said Rafe Sagarin, the program manager in the University of Arizona College of Science who oversees the transformation of the Biosphere 2 ocean habitat. 

The new ocean will feature a rocky intertidal zone hugging a sandy beach, an underwater forest and a cactus-studded island. A variety of fishes, octopus, moray eels, stingrays, and possibly even sea turtles and giant squid may soon live in Arizona's only desert ocean.

Through large acrylic windows, visitors can look below the surface of the ocean habitat. Photo: Shelley Littin/UANews

The opportunity will allow marine scientists to perform experiments that would not be feasible in a real ocean. It also will foster education efforts so schoolchildren can learn about marine environments and visitors can discover important connections between the sea and the desert.

"True to Biosphere 2's mission of being a one-of-a-kind facility 'where science lives,' we will share this project with the public while it is in progress," Sagarin said.

A remodeled Ocean Gallery has just opened to the public, explaining the connection between the Sonoran Desert and the Gulf of California, following the exploits of past explorers, and laying out the plans for the finished "mini ocean."

Sagarin and his collaborators are looking at a wide range of funding options to provide support for the ambitious endeavor, including the National Science Foundation, nongovernmental organizations and foundations that have funded research and conservation projects in the gulf.

To get the project off the ground, Sagarin has launched a crowd funding campaign on Rockethub, with the purpose of not only raising funds, but awareness as well. This is the first time the University has officially sanctioned crowdfunding for a scientific project.

Source: Daniel Stolte, University of Arizona