Manmade Hillslopes will Improve Global Climate Models

What has six-hundred tons of volcanic rocks sitting in a giant steel tub, thousands of gallons of water spouting from a network of pipes, and 1,800 sensors scattering three identical hillslopes collecting information? If you guessed the world’s only and largest manmade experimental watershed, then you’re correct!

Recently completed at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) is an engineering masterpiece where three 100 feet by 40 feet hillslopes will provide results used to improve global climate models and make predictions more realistic and reliable.

Biosphere 2 Science Director Peter Troch, a professor in the UA’s department of hydrology and water resources says, “LEO provides the scientific community with a tool to learn about the landscape in ways we haven’t been able to before. It will help us to really understand Earth’s surface processes.”

“The interactions of water and organisms living in and on the ground are what sustains life on Earth,” Troch added, explaining that minerals in the soil release nutrients, which are then transported in water and changed by microbes until plants extract them and turn them into biomass.

LEO provides researchers with real evidence of how the changing climate will affect movement of water and how the atmosphere interacts with the soil. The observatory will also allow scientists to play with various environmental conditions and study the outcomes. Being able to simulate real-world events will be crucial for understanding the effects of climate change on landscapes.

“LEO gives us this comparison at a scale that is relevant for landscapes,” he said. “The data go into a database, where everybody can access them and use them to validate their own models.”

“This is important to the public because of the challenges we face on a global level,” DeLong said. “What happens to landscapes after droughts occur and conditions become drier in general? How do increased dryness and heat affect fire danger and, down the road, people?”

“We know there are microbes in the soil, and they will start taking gases from the atmosphere and turning them into compounds that they give off into the soil and help with chemical weathering,” Troch said, “and we can study those processes right away.”

Scientists are also hoping to add plants to the biosphere to get a better understanding of how hydrology changes when vegetation is added. Studying how water runs down slopes and how plants develop different strategies will allow scientists to see how much water a tree actually uses.

Read more at the University of Arizona.

Article by Allison Winter, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

LEO’s Hillslope image credit UA Biosphere 2 via the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

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