Researchers at Biosphere 2 will plant coffee trees to celebrate Earth Day

The rain forest biome at Biosphere 2

The rainforest biome at Biosphere 2.

Bob Demers

Coffee in pot

Twenty-five coffee trees will be planted in the Biosphere 2 rainforest to celebrate Earth Day.

John Adams

Most of the world's coffee grows on mountainsides in the Bean Belt, a topical region hugging the equator. But could your morning coffee one day come from trees grown in Arizona?

Coffee is the world's most traded product, second in value only to oil, and it is highly vulnerable to climate change. Warmer, drier conditions brought about by increasing global temperatures are expected to change where – and the conditions in which – coffee is grown.

At the University of Arizona's Biosphere 2 research facility, scientists are studying the sensitivity of coffee plants, which require moderate temperatures and lots of moisture, to increased temperature and reduced humidity. They're also looking at how growing and bean processing conditions affect coffee flavor, in hopes of making the popular beverage tastier and more sustainable.

To celebrate Earth Day on April 22, which this year has the theme "Invest in Our Planet," researchers will plant 25 coffee trees in the Biosphere 2 tropical rainforest biome – a 20,000-square-foot area modeled after the Amazon Basin and enclosed in the glass and steel structure of Biosphere 2.

"In general, planting trees is an excellent way to celebrate Earth Day, but part of our mission at Biosphere 2 is to approach every day as Earth Day, so for us, this is really just business as usual," said Biosphere 2 deputy director John Adams. "By introducing the coffee trees, our rainforest researchers are hoping to find solutions that make these plants more resilient to future climate challenges and to develop simple, reliable bean processing techniques for small coffee producers. Doing so not only helps us better understand the impact climate change has on the rainforest, but it also benefits communities whose economies are reliant on the success of coffee as an export."

Joost van Haren, a Biosphere 2 assistant research professor, and Jeri Wilcox , an honors student in environmental science, are investigating how climate change will affect coffee trees. They've teamed up with coffee sommelier and Savaya Coffee Market owner Burc Maruflu to plan a Coffee Lab at Biosphere 2, and they have harvested beans grown in the biosphere's orchard to make small batches and assess their flavor profiles. The Coffee Lab will help them to expand their research and get more students involved. Maruflu is also a lecturer in the School of Geography, Development and Environment in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

"Students will get to do hands-on work with beans, do processing and generate their own cup of coffee and see what the processing does," van Haren said. "This will also lead to more outreach opportunities for the public as well."

Tucked away at the base of the Catalina Mountains, about a 45-minute drive from the UArizona campus, Biosphere 2 was originally used in the 1990s to test if humans could live self-sufficiently in an enclosure that mimics the Earth's ecosystems and natural processes. UArizona acquired the facility in 2011, and it now serves as the world's largest controlled Earth science laboratory and hosts over 100,000 visitors annually.

In the rainforest biome's early days, it was home to 2,800 plants from over 400 species from Puerto Rico, Belize, Venezuela and Brazil, including coffee trees. Few coffee trees from that first generation remain. There are now 60 coffee trees under the glass, with the top producing trees located outside of the rainforest, in the orchard.

The new coffee trees will be planted April 23. People who donate $500 to Biosphere 2 will receive a free membership and the opportunity to plant one of the trees.

Other Earth Day opportunities

Also in honor of Earth Day, the inaugural TMC Earth Day 5K Run/Walk will be held at Biosphere 2 April 23. The event is a partnership between Run Tucson and Biosphere 2, and funds raised will go to Biosphere 2's Ocean Reef Lab. All race registrants will be able to visit Biosphere 2 on their own throughout the day.

In addition, through April 30, anyone who donates $100 to Biosphere 2 will receive a locally roasted, 12-ounce pouch of Wildcat Local Roast Medium/Dark Craft Decaf Ground Coffee.