Three things to know about the Landscape Evolution Observatory Story and photos By Darrien Benally

North of Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert, the last thing you might expect to see is a man-made pyramid jutting out of the unassuming landscape. This facility is known as Biosphere 2, and it is a 3.14-acre laboratory for environmental and climate change research.

In 2011, the University of Arizona acquired Biosphere 2, which now holds five different biomes inside its large structure. The biomes include the ocean, mangrove wetlands, tropical forests, savannah grasslands, and fog desert. By controlling additional variables, these interior environments are ideal for science experiments that are impossible in real-world conditions.

In addition to the biomes, Biosphere 2 also houses a project known as the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO). The LEO is the world's biggest controlled experiment that helps environmental scientists understand how carbon, water, and energy interact to create soil and evolve land over time.

Here are three things to know about the research at LEO.


The research at LEO seeks to discover how landscapes change overtime. When the project was started in 2015, a group of interdisciplinary scientists determined that a scientific community resource was needed to understand further how water interacts within a landscape. There were many questions about how such things as hydrology and geochemistry interact within an ecosystem.


The LEO is made of three identical hillslopes, all on a 10-degree slope hillside. Each of the landscapes has basalt rock as its base because the rock can be found in many locations throughout the world. The basalt at LEO came from Northern Arizona.

Aaron Bugaj, LEO Senior Research Specialist, discusses his research at the site. (Photo by Elena Mantilla)

A close up of the structural support for LEO.


The LEO is a first-of-its-kind research tool. This meant that researchers and engineers were creating something novel to understand how landscapes evolve. Since the LEO was constructed in an existing structure, engineers created specialized equipment to make the build happen. Further, the LEO has 1,800 sensors located under the soil that monitor carbon, water, and energy cycling.

See it for yourself!

Unlike many research facilities, the public can purchase tickets to tour Biosphere 2 and see LEO for themselves.

At first glance, the project might look like a series of strange indoor hills. But the research at the LEO will provide insight into the potential impacts crucial resources, such as water face, in a changing climate.

As climate conditions continue to warm in Arizona, this research is as essential as ever.