Biosphere definition: “The biosphere is the global sum of all ecosystems. It can also be termed as the zone of life on Earth, a closed system (apart from solar and cosmic radiator and heat from the interior of the Earth), and largely self-regulating”
The Earth is Biosphere I. At Christmas time, I visited the infamous Biosphere II. Located near the town of Oracle in Arizona, Biosphere II now owned by the University of Arizona, is a glass and steel structure covering 3.15 acres (1.28 hectares) of what was once Sonoran desert. Financed by Texas oil billionaire, Ed Bass and inspired by Synergerian John Allen who has been described as either a visionary or a cult leader, Biosphere II was built in 1987 and designed to house five different Earth environments or biomes–fog desert, savannah, tropical rainforest, mangrove swamp, and ocean–along with a small farm, in a closed system, without oxygen or water exchange with the outside world. It was to be a large scale experiment to see what life might be like for future Martian colonists living in similar bubbles, along with its less publicized mission to find out if biospheres could function as refuges (Refugia) for small groups of people to survive nuclear war or other disasters.
Schematic of Biosphere II’s Biomes
Image Owned by BiosphereII (CC0 Public Domain)
Generating a great deal of excitement around the world, on Sept. 26, 1991, eight Biospherians, four men and four women, entered Biosphere II and sealed themselves in for a planned two year experiment to see if they could live in a sustainable self-contained system, growing all of their own food and recycling all of their wastes and water. Almost from the outset, the grand experiment was plagued with many problems including: the Biospherians couldn’t grow enough food to sustain themselves; many of the 3,800 Biosphere species, from hummingbirds to bees perished, disrupting the poorly designed ecosystems’ balances; and the bacteria in the soil and compost overproduced carbon dioxide and depleted the oxygen, forcing the Biosphere managers to pump oxygen into the structure to keep the crew alive.
One of the most interesting and unexpected problems of the mission came from the Biospherians themselves. Confined in an isolated environment, starving, and suffering the effects of low oxygen levels, the crew separated into two bitter factions, first arguing over the purpose of the experiment and later about almost everything. So bad was the split between the two groups that it inspired the Dutch developers of a new TV series which we now know as Big Brother.
On Sept. 26, 1993, the grand experiment ended as the crew emerged out of the Biosphere II’s airlock into Biosphere I. At the time and even now, many view the Biosphere II experiment as a failure. In 1999, Time Magazine included Biosphere II in its list of 100 worst ideas. But nearly 150 scientific papers have been published on the results from the experiment, ranging from to structural engineering to invasive ant species dominance to physiological changes due to caloric deprivation to the effects of drought on tropical rainforests. It has been acknowledged that much of what is known about ocean acidification was originally discovered in studies done in Biosphere II. Biosphere II has also contributed to our better understanding of the carbon cycle and oxygen dynamics, soil nutrients and agricultural productivity, and bioremediation and waste water reclamation. And despite ongoing problems and changing ownership, Biosphere II is still being used for scientific research. Now part of the University of Arizona it is involved in many projects, including the landscape evolution observatory, rainforest drought manipulations. No longer a closed system, visitors are allowed inside on guided tours through the biomes and the south lung. Here are a few photos from my visit:
The two sections I found most interesting were the ocean biome and the south lung. When you enter the ocean biome, you hear a massive, regular boom like a heart beat; it’s the sound of the vacuum wave generator and makes the Biosphere seem like a living thing. It’s oddly comforting. The ocean is made up of 3.8 million liters of seawater originally trucked in from Gulf of California and was originally designed to mimic the Caribbean Sea, complete with a coral reef and fish. When the ocean acidified during the course of the original experiment with the Biospherians, the coral reef died but there is still life in the miniature ocean. I could see bright yellow tangs swim by the underwater window; the fish are not fed by staff but are self sufficient. Out of the 47 species introduced into the ocean at the start, 11 survived the years of neglect and the yellow tang are especially successful. The reasons for their singular success are being studied. At the same time, the University of Arizona is slowly changing the ocean to become a microcosm of the Gulf of California instead of the Caribbean for future research purposes.
The south lung or variable volume pressure relief system is another fascinating stop on the Biosphere II tour and, once again, it makes the structure seem alive. There are two lungs, both large expansion chambers whose flexible membranes can move up and down to keep the pressure differential between the Biosphere II and outside atmosphere at zero and limiting the leakage rate to less than 10% –a notable achievement. Most people focus on the biomes of Biosphere II without realizing the engineering infrastructure, the Technosphere, keeping it functional.
If you ever get the chance to visit Biosphere II, it’s definitely worth it! It has been called a successful failure for not accomplishing its original goals but instead for highlighting unforeseen problems, both in terms of design and choosing personnel for future space colonies and in predicting the consequences of climate change in Biosphere I.
Biosphere has a much more colourful history than I have covered in this write up. If you are interested in learning more, here are some more links:
Jane Poynter was one of the original Biospherians http://www.janepoynter.com/documents/LessonsfromBio2.pdf;