Biosphere 2 was a late-eighties project, designed and financed by a private group interested in replicating the life systems that sustain us on Earth (Biosphere 1). The main financier, Ed Bass put up more than $100 million to get the three acre project built. In one large structure five biomes live and breathe under glass. There is a rainforest, an ocean, a savannah, a marsh and a desert. As you walk along a raised viewing platform, you feel and smell the changes in the air, damp and earthy in the rainforest, salty near the ocean, parched grass in the savannah.
Ultimately eight people were sealed inside Biosphere 2 for two years, and survived on food they grew, air generated by the biosphere systems, and water condensed from the air. Some claim the project failed because extra oxygen was added on two occasions and the eight humans struggled to feed themselves in the closed loop system. But they did stay sealed in Biosphere 2 the entire time.
The tour takes you underground where room sized air handlers keep the giant greenhouses temperate. Enormous cisterns store water that is carried through a web of pipes to water the plants in the biomes, to replenish the ocean and to provide for the humans. We descended through a sloping steel pipe to one of the biosphere’s lungs. The domed structure’s rubber walls expand when the greenhouses heat up, sending a steel disc in the ceiling skyward and equalizing the air pressure. When temperatures cool the heavy ceiling sinks, pushing air back into the glass structure. We marveled at the massive agricultural greenhouse where the biospherians labored daily to produce their food. Pesticides and fertilizers would have poisoned the closed ecological system, so crops were grown organically. The biospherians employed an arsenal of old fashioned weapons such as ladybugs, lacewings, soapy water and hand picking to thwart pests that threatened their primary food sources.
Issues with excess carbon in Earth’s atmosphere were not commonly recognized at the time, yet the biospherians’ biggest battle was regulating levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in their air. Scientists from around the globe put their heads together to come up with solutions as they recognized what was happening in Biosphere 2 might someday happen on Earth.
Today Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona and used for research projects. A scientist answered questions for our group about an experimental system exploring life forms such as bacteria that plants add to the soil via their roots.
In the agricultural greenhouse U of A is working on a ten year project called LEO. The Landscape Evolution Observatory is designed to analyze the movement of water, carbon and energy through the landscape. Currently three mountains are under construction inside the hangar sized greenhouse. Volcanic soil is packed on ramp structures that sit atop sensors calibrated to measure the movement of water above, through and under ground. Three years into the project plants will be added to the hillsides to further study how plants transpire water and encourage biological activity in the soil.
I bet you haven’t been to Biosphere 2, so you might want to add it to your bucket list. Mom and I found it eerie and inspiring.
Books on Biosphere 2: The Human Experiment by biospherian Jane Poynter
Dreaming the Biosphere by Rebecca Reider