Biosphere 2, located in Oracle, Arizona near Tucson, was built in the late 1980’s as a closed and self-sustaining facility developed as a space-colonization technology. I had heard and read a little about the facility over the past few years, just enough to pique my curiosity of this self-contained world, but I knew very little of the history of the place before touring it. Those of you that are older than us may remember the missions in the facility in the early 1990’s. Apparently the missions received a lot of negative media attention and it was viewed as a failure, though eight people successfully lived inside the closed Biosphere 2 for two years and engineers learned a lot from the process about contained self-sufficient systems.
Earth is Biosphere 1; as a system earth is open energetically and closed materially. That is, energy enters in the form of sunlight and exits as infrared radiation, but matter does not enter or exit (ignoring meteor collisions and mars rovers that never return). Matter is recycled within the atmospheric boundaries, for instance carbon dioxide and water turned into sugar and oxygen by plants, sugar and oxygen turned into water and carbon dioxide by animals. Water evaporates from the ocean and is transpired by plants, once in the air the water vapor coalesces into clouds in the sky and rains back down to earth. On land the water collects in streams and flows back into the ocean. The designers of Biosphere 2 replicated all those natural processes to create a self-contained environment, complete with five ecosystems: an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands on the ocean shore, a tropical rainforest that even contains a waterfall, savannah grassland where the stream from the rainforest runs through and a coastal fog desert. During the 1990’s missions, there was also a complete farm where the “biospherians”, as those that lived in it are called, grew crops and raised animals for meat. Since 1996, the facility has been used as a climate and earth science research laboratory first by Columbia University and today by the University of Arizona. It is no longer a closed system (people come and go through open doors), and the farm has recently been converted into a Landscape Evolution Observatory.
Our tour was led by a veteran tour guide (I believe her name was Tina), who was very enthusiastic and engaging. John and I both thoroughly enjoyed the tour; it was interesting and entertaining (the only downside was that we were in a particularly large tour group that made it impossible to retreat and see things we missed, such as the mangrove trees, but we managed to stay up near the front so we didn’t miss anything Tina said). John got annoyed at me as I answered (correctly) every question the tour guide posed, for instance: What is the biggest source of oxygen on the planet? (plankton) Oxygen had to be pumped into the system during the first mission because the levels dropped so low that the biospherians could no longer function properly…where did the oxygen go? (absorbed into the concrete – think about this when you look around the amount of concrete in our cities) What architect designed the geodesic dome? (Buckminster Fuller!)
To hear a first-hand account of living in Biosphere 2, I highly recommend watching this TED talk by Jane Poynter.
After the tour we spent another hour looking at the various scientific and environmental exhibits. We learned how old buildings containing logs are dated by matching the tree rings to logs of known age. John expressed disappointment in the management who placed a bottled water vending machine next to exhibits describing the environmental harm that plastic bottles do and advising everyone to use refillable containers instead of buying bottled water. We sought out comment cards to give feed back about this and about how great the tour guide was.