Do you remember Biosphere 2 from the 1990s? Eight people lived in a sealed environment for two years out in the Arizona desert. When they finished their term, there was another group that started. I had vague recollections of it.
The Biosphere 2 is still here and is now owned and operated by the University of Arizona. The environment is no longer sealed and no longer conducts human experiments, yet, because the biosphere was created, a wealth of earth science experiments are possible.
The big project now is Landscape Environmental Observatory (LEO). On three large (think massive) landscapes, researchers are investigating how water, carbon and energy move through controlled environments. Much of the research emphasis is on global climate change.
They do “little” experiments too – this one in conjunction with a local high school science class.
When we visited, we were very fortunate to be offered a History Tour in addition to the regular Biosphere 2 Tour. Guides for both tours were excellent, some of the best we’ve ever had.
The question I wanted to ask was “What happened to Biosphere 1?” They answered that before I could ask. The scientists consider Biosphere 1 to be our Earth.
With a private expenditure of $150,000,000, Space Biospheres Ventures bought desert property in 1984 and began construction two years later with the purpose of developing self-sustaining space colonization technology. NASA was aware of, but not involved in Biosphere 2.
While construction was proceeding, scientists took 7 – 21 day trial runs in this small, practice biosphere.
Construction was completed in 1991. The glass enclosure has a floor plan of 3.14 acres and used 6500 windows. It is 91 feet high at the highest point and encloses 7.2 million cubic feet. A 500 ton stainless steel liner separates Biosphere 2 from the earth below. It involves thousands of miles of wiring, pipes and ductwork. It is an engineering marvel.
Five biome environments are part of Biosphere 2: rainforest, desert, savannah, ocean and wetlands.
The first of two Human Missions began in 1991. The four men and four women entered the airlock door below. To the right was their communication window where people from the outside could come, see and speak with them using a phone just out of the picture.
Each person had their own apartment and there was a communal kitchen.
The mission started with a 120 day store of food because it would take 90 days for new crops grown within the biosphere to yield food. The monitoring and growing of food was their primary task and they each spent 65-70 hours per week doing that as well as maintaining systems. They grew 45 different crops and had an orchard for fruit trees. They had a few chickens, pigs and goats.
The biospherians had a largely vegetarian diet with meat included only once a week. They each had one small cup of coffee every two weeks as the coffee plant was deemed non-essential and only a small amount of space was dedicated to it.
A doctor was part of the group to monitor the biospherians’ health and to monitor personal and social responses to the two year enclosure and commitment. After eight months, each biospherian had lost between 20-25 pounds because they weren’t getting enough to eat.
Although the desert area north of Tucson was chosen because it averaged 300 days of sunshine a year, 1991-2 were El Nino years and the skies were far more overcast than usual. That effected the growth of plants and the production of food.
The reduced plant growth also effected the oxygen levels within the biosphere. Optimal oxygen levels for humans range between 19.5 and 23.5 percent. Serious side effects, and eventual death occur if oxygen levels fall below those levels. At or below 17 percent, mental abilities become impaired. Levels of 16 percent and below bring noticeable changes to physical well being. Levels under 14 percent will cause extreme exhaustion from physical activity.
At the end of the first year, the levels of oxygen available for the biospherians were 14.2 percent. They were trying to work 65 -70 hours per week, were constantly hungry and living at the oxygen equivalent of 13,000 feet. Things were not going well and there was a lot of discord within the biosphere.
The decision was made to use the biosphere’s lungs to inject additional oxygen into the environment. This was done three times and allowed the experiment to continue. The eight scientists completed their assignment.
There was a second, six month, mission which ended abruptly, with drama. We heard and read several different accounts of the problems but all were from the outside, not within Biosphere 2. The decision was made to end Human Missions.
So, strictly speaking, was the biosphere environment capable of supporting the eight humans, plants and animals for two years without outside assistance? No, but part of scientific research is learning what goes wrong and why. That knowledge is important too.
Although still privately owned, the property went through a series of management companies, eventually landing with Columbia University from 1996 to 2003. They built classrooms and housing to allow students studying earth systems science to live onsite while conducting experiments.
Biosphere 2 was eventually donated to the University of Arizona who operates it as a research facility. It was a very interesting place to visit and doesn’t feel like a failed experiment at all.
Even in “failed experiments” some positives come forth. One couple each from both the first and second human missions developed relationships and were married after they came out of Biosphere 2.