Exploring the glass-encased artificial earth in the Arizona desert.
Thirty minutes outside of Tucson, Arizona lies Biosphere 2, the Earth’s largest closed system science research facility ever created.
Built in the late 1980s with $150 million in funding from Texas oil magnate Edward Bass, Biosphere 2 was designed as an airtight replica of Earth’s environment (Biosphere 1).
This 7,200,000-cubic-foot sealed glass and space-frame structure contains 5 biomes, including a 900,000-gallon ocean, a rainforest, a desert, agricultural areas and a human habitat.
It was conceived by John Allen, a dominant member of a New Mexico commune with ideas of developing an autonomous refuge from impending global doom.
Allen envisioned a glass-enclosed habitat in which plants and animals would live in symbiosis, completely sealed off from their environment, providing for all the needs of their human caretakers.
In essence, a giant people terrarium. Visitors can take a tour of the now non-sealed biosphere and learn about the over 3,500 exotic species growing in the dome, as well as the experiments currently taking place in it.
Yep, there’s a tropical rainforest in there.
The tour begins in the human habitat, where the Biospherians lived, the farm area where they grew their crops and the kitchen where they cooked their meals. I was 10 minutes late so I missed part of that:(
Fruit trees provided food and vitamins to the Biospherians. Grow lights were later installed after El Nino conditions shaded the Biosphere 2 during their experiment. The unusually cloudy weather, inhibited plant growth and, subsequently, food production. Some Biospherians allegedly began hoarding and stealing food. It was reported that one crew member was threatened to have her employment terminated when she revealed to the public they were dipping into secret food stocks.
Halfway through the 2-year experiment, oxygen levels in the ‘Sphere’s air had dropped from a normal 21% mixture down to 14%. Simple chores were leaving the Biospherians out of breath. Some were having trouble sleeping and were forced to use oxygen bottles. As they would later discover, the overly rich soil used in the project caused an explosion of oxygen-depleting bacteria. Eventually, project managers were forced to pump in oxygen from the outside.
By the end, Arizona’s little Sim City was a virtual disaster. When the crew emerged, they had lost, on average, 15% of their body weight. The ocean had become acidic, the air polluted. Temperature control was a mess. As for the animals, 19 of the 25 vertebrate species had gone extinct.
Less than six months after the end of the first mission, management made a second attempt to man the ‘Sphere. This time, it would be five men and two women (one of whom had answered an anonymous want ad announcing a position for a greenhouse gardener). Crewmembers would be replaced at varying intervals, performing research continuously for the next 100 years. Emphasis would be placed on science rather than survival. But that’s when things really started to shake up. Financier Edward Bass ousted the project’s management team less than a month into the new mission. In retaliation, two former Biospherians attempted to sabotage the project by opening the ‘Sphere’s doors and breaking several windows. The mission continued as normal, but was terminated just a few months later after new management reevaluated Biosphere 2’s purpose. They were converting it to an open research facility.
From there, things went fairly smoothly until the compound mysteriously accumulated dangerous levels of nitrous oxide aka, laughing gas. That’s when management decided to, in their words, hit the reset button. In 1995, they cycled out all the air and replaced the soil and water. Today the Biosphere is doing much better.
This very healthy coastal fog desert is modeled after the deserts along the Pacific and Baja, CA.
Current research projects include landscape evolution, water & climate and energy & sustainability.
The tour cuts a 1-mile path through the Biospheres huge campus. After touring the desert, you enter the technosphere, where mechanical systems make control of the B2 environments possible.
Water? They’ve got water. Over the years they have decreased their water usage by incorporating water saving technologies into the facility.
After walking through a tunnel, we entered the air-pressure equalization “lung.” A huge membrane supports a very large and heavy disk that rises and falls to keep the air pressure within Biosphere-2 constant throughout the day and night. This was critical when Biosphere-2 was hermetically sealed from the outside environment. Since that is no longer the case, the disk usually rests on the floor, supported by the white posts around its circumference.
Outside the lung.
The entire campus is beautiful and includes, teaching facilities, gift shops, housing, restaurants and even a hotel.
On June 27, 2011, the University announced that it would assume full ownership of Biosphere 2, effective July 1. CDO Ranching & Development donated the land, Biosphere buildings and several other support and administrative buildings. The Philecology Foundation (a nonprofit research foundation founded by Ed Bass) pledged $20 million for the ongoing science and operations.