The World in a Bottle

Posted Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 11:57 AM

"The Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) is the world’s largest laboratory experiment in the earth sciences."

The World in a Bottle

PostedTuesday, May 1, 2018 at 12:26 PM

Kate Gramling
Kate Gramling
The World in a Bottle

The Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) is a cornerstone project at Biosphere 2, a unique research facility located about 30 miles north-northeast of Tucson, AZ. It’s not only a model for how interdisciplinary research can be done, it is a true engineering marvel.

Biosphere 2, itself, is a remarkable engineering achievement. Built in the late 1980s, it was designed to be a completely closed living environment – one that could provide the people living inside with all the air, water, and food they needed to survive. When completed, and all hatches and vents were closed, Biosphere 2 was more airtight than a space shuttle!

The University of Arizona assumed management of Biosphere 2 in 2007 and began discussing plans for large-scale, interdisciplinary research inside the facility. After several workshops, an idea emerged to create a controlled experiment to determine how water, energy, and carbon interact to create the conditions necessary to support life. This information is critical to understanding and predicting how different environments may respond to climate change.

The LEO experiment involved building 3 identical, artificial hillslopes inside Biosphere 2. Each hillslope would be a 40-foot-wide by 100-foot-long tray filled with 3 feet of crushed volcanic rock. Each tray would sit at a 10˚ angle on specially designed scales that could continually monitor its weight and help scientists model how the weight was distributed. Computer controlled sprinklers surrounding each slope would simulate many different kinds of rainfall.

Each hillslope would have more than 1700 sensors buried in a three-dimensional grid covering the entire slope. These sensors measure various characteristics of the ground such as water saturation, CO2, and temperature. Suspended above each hillslope would be an array of five weather stations that could measure the chemical and moisture content of the air. Each would also have a specially designed personnel transport “gantry” that would give scientist access to the entire slope without disturbing its surface.

If that doesn’t sound complicated enough, everything needed for construction, from the huge steel beams that supported the slopes to the 3 million pounds of crushed volcanic rock used to create them, had to be squeezed through a 10-by-15-foot door. Engineers likened the project to building three ships in a bottle.



Construction of LEO took 5 years – one year longer that it took to build the entire original Biosphere 2 complex. Now in operation, LEO experiments are already informing and helping to improve the accuracy of various climate models.

LEO is another great example of how important engineering is to scientific research. Many bold, visionary ideas for scientific discovery would remain merely ideas without the skills and experience that engineers bring to these projects.


What other large-scale science experiments have engineers helped to create?


Photo:  Courtesy of the University of Arizona Biosphere 2 website.

Filed Under Software Special fields and Interdisciplinary Civil Environmental Earth Resources Agricultural Computers Construction Environment Space