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.

Biosphere 2 as we walk up for the tour.

Biosphere 2 as we walk up for the tour.

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.

The airtight door into Biosphere 2.

The airtight door into Biosphere 2.

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!)

Biosphere 2’s ocean, complete with wave machine. I believe the coral reef initially in there was killed by Columbia’s experiments double, tripling, even quadrupling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Some fish still live, eating the plankton imported with the Pacific Ocean sea water brought in to form the ocean.

Biosphere 2’s ocean, complete with wave machine. I believe the coral reef initially in there was killed by Columbia’s experiments double, tripling, even quadrupling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Some fish still live, eating the plankton imported with the Pacific Ocean sea water brought in to fill the ocean.

The thick walls let in sunlight but close off the atmosphere. The mangroves at the far end of the ocean were rescued from a development project in southern Florida shortly before Hurricane Andrew hit and people realized that mangroves provided protection from the force of hurricane, prompting Florida to outlaw the removal of the trees from the state.

The thick glass walls let in sunlight but close off the atmosphere. The mangroves at the far end of the ocean were rescued from a development project in southern Florida shortly before Hurricane Andrew hit and people realized that mangroves provided vital protection from the force of hurricane, prompting Florida to outlaw the removal of the trees from the state.

The tropical rainforest. Small monkeys inhabited this area during the first mission to provide entertainment and companionship to the crew members, but they turned out to be a lot work and were donated to a zoo between the first and second missions.

The tropical rainforest. Small monkeys inhabited this area during the first mission to provide entertainment and companionship to the crew members, but they turned out to be a lot work and were donated to a zoo between the first and second missions.

The coastal fog desert, with our tour guide Tina in the bottom right corner.

The coastal fog desert, with our tour guide Tina in the bottom right corner.

The century plant blossoms that Tina is pointing to in the picture above. We actually got to see a century plant with flowers!

The century plant blossoms that Tina is pointing to in the picture above. We actually got to see a century plant with flowers!

An exterior view of the section of Biosphere 2 that was farm and is now a Landscape Evolution Observatory; this section was closed from the tour.

An exterior view of the section of Biosphere 2 that was farm and is now a Landscape Evolution Observatory; this section was closed from the tour.

The kitchen in the living quarters of the Biosphere 2 mission crew members. Oh, how I covet this kitchen!

The kitchen in the living quarters of the Biosphere 2 mission crew members. Oh, how I covet this kitchen!

The climate control system located in the basement.

The climate control system located in the basement.

Astute observers may wonder how a glass building closed to air entering or exiting handles temperature changes that expand and contract air. Biosphere 2 has two “lungs” - basically giant balloons that can expand and contract with the air pressure.

Astute readers may wonder how a glass building closed to air entering or exiting handles temperature changes that expand and contract air. Biosphere 2 has two “lungs” – basically giant balloons that can expand and contract with the air pressure. We are standing in a lung here – the black ring in the ceiling is rubber and the whole ceiling can raise and lower. The poles hanging down are a safety mechanism so the ceiling doesn’t collapse onto a tourist.

If that circular room with the rubber-ring for a ceiling is the lung, then this is the wind pipe.

If that circular room with the rubber-ring for a ceiling is the lung, then this is the trachea.

Notice how my hair flies near the door connecting the lung to the outside world as the air rushes in.

Notice how my hair flies near the door connecting the lung to the outside world as the air rushes in.

A geodesic dome protects the lung balloon.

A geodesic dome protects the lung balloon.

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.

As we drove from the Biosphere 2, we saw this interesting phenomenon - doesn’t the moon look like a comet?

As we drove from the Biosphere 2, we saw this interesting phenomenon – doesn’t the moon look like a comet?

7 Thoughts on “A World Within Our World

  1. Rita on March 7, 2014 at 3:20 pm said:

    Did the air smell different in there? Cleaner, greener, chemical-like etc?
    I want that kitchen too!
    Right on John about the water machine. For cripes sake.

    • Heidi on March 9, 2014 at 9:18 pm said:

      More cleaner and greener than chemical-like. The smell and plant life reminded me of being in the Conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, which is also a series of glass buildings bursting with plant life, with a humid tropical area and a desert area. Maybe other botanical gardens have similar greenhouse enclosures?

  2. Yutong on March 7, 2014 at 8:50 pm said:

    Great post guys! I do remember all the bad publicity the bio-dome-thingies got…

    Hey John, I wish I could keep up with more of what you two have been up to, every post is really super cool, but I have to start working on migrating projects to using prod process runners… don’t you feel jealous… NOT!

    Wish I were you! Keep on rolling!

    -Yutong

    • Thanks man! As the photojournalist and copy editor (and sys admin), and Heidi as the Editor-in-chief and head writer we really appreciate your “…every post is really super cool” comment!

      That said, No excuses about not reading! 🙂 Live vicariously through us when you need a break from the Goog… and yeah, totally not jealous… although I do miss hanging out and watching “Shark” rescue missions involving tiny RC helicopters. Man that was a fun day!

      We’ll be keeping on keeping on, at least for a couple more months. The fun has to end at some point (when the money starts to run out).

      All the best to you and the fam, plus the Google crew in NYC!

      -John

  3. In Milwaukee there are the Horticultural Domes in Mitchell Park. Three of them each with a different environment. We used to go there often because my mom loved to garden. The smell was like that there too.

  4. Patricia Lehne on March 19, 2014 at 12:21 pm said:

    I remember reading about the Biosphere Project and the controversy over it. I often wondered what happened to the buildings. This is very interesting. It’s nice to see the inside of it. Thanks your doing a great job.

  5. Tamar on March 23, 2014 at 6:56 pm said:

    I recently listened to an interesting podcast about biosphere 2 – very cool to see pictures of the real thing!

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