home of the miniature Sea of Cortez

The story was produced for Arizona Public Media AZIllustrated Nature weekly TV show and published at https://ondemand.azpm.org/videoshorts/watch/2014/4/15/32887-biosphere-2-plans-to-build-small-replica-of-gulf-of-california/

A research team in Biosphere 2 wants to create a small version of the Gulf of California.

The Sea of Cortez is one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems with more than 5,000 species of plants and animals. The gulf stretches between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico.

Now, researchers at Biosphere 2 want to replicate some of these ecological aspects in a controlled environment, and hopefully create a site for scientific research about oceans in the desert.

The Biosphere already has an ocean enclosed in a 700,000-gallon tank, but it eventually will become the home of the miniature Sea of Cortez.

“We are planning on making a transformation of this ocean to look like a Gulf of California,, which is the closest ocean to where we are…” said Rafe Sagarin, a marine biologist who also heads The Desert Sea project. “(This transformation) will allow us to greatly enhance the visitor outreach as well as the scientific research we do.”

The ocean at Biosphere 2 was originally built as a coral reef ecosystem. For years, it’s been a platform for scientific research on ocean acidification, plastics pollution and microorganisms in the ocean, Sagarin explained.

With the Desert Sea project, Sagarin’s team of researchers aims to keep looking into issues oceans face.

“All of the challenges that the world’s ocean face are concentrated in the ocean that is right near us in the Southern Arizona, that includes development, pollution, plastic pollution, changes to the climate change, changes to the overfishing,” Sagarin said.

The ocean has few fish and the reefs are overgrown with algae, he said.

The Desert Sea would bring a lot of changes.

“We are going to build up rocky shores around…many of the shores in Mexico are rocky and they are good environments for a lot of organism and doing scientific study,” Sagarin said. “We are also going to build up an island in the middle of the ocean that will actually grow desert plants on it, (because) if you went down to the gulf you would see many islands that have cactus and other plants that we are used to seeing the desert going right down to the shore.”

The Gulf of California stretches more than 62,000-square miles, is nearly 10,000 feet deep in some places, and supports a great diversity of marine life. It will be difficult to replicate it fully in a nearly 700,000-gallon tank, but the researchers are positive about what they could accomplish.

“If we could educate the public about the connection between the desert and the sea…bring our many K-12 students and K-12…teachers…and (have) researchers from all over the world come here (to) use our little model of the Gulf of California, we will be very satisfied…” Sagarin said.

The Desert Sea project is a work in progress and could take several years to finish. Biosphere 2 launched a kick-starter campaign on the crowd-funding site RocketHub to raise $100,000 for the project by April 22.

©AZPM 2013, AZ Illustrated Science
Producer: Anna Augustowska
Videographer: Andrew Brown
Editor: Steve Bayless

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