Despite Covid, we are managing to get out and do a few field trips during our winter here. One was to visit Biosphere 2, located an hour or so north of us. I have long wanted to visit the site — I remember hearing about it back in the 90’s. As a lifetime sci-fi geek, the concept excited me.
Biosphere 2 was originally intended to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space. It was named Biosphere 2 because Earth itself is the original biosphere. The habitat was built to house eight human volunteers (biospherians) for a two-year mission. The facility includes a fog desert, rainforest, ocean with coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, agricultural area and human living quarters. Power is supplied by onsite power generators and an extensive air conditioning / heating system is built under and around it. The volunteers would grow their own food, conduct experiments, care for farm animals, and maintain the facility in a completely enclosed and self-contained environment.
Covid precautions required us to pre-book our timed ticket. We downloaded their app, which led us through a one-way self-guided tour of much of the facility. There were only a couple of other visitors present, which made social distancing easy!
The careful thought that went into the facility was evident as we wandered through the surprisingly spacious facility. The variety of species present was fascinating, as was the overall design. I could only imagine what it must have been like for the biospherians to live in this — their entire world for two years.
The two-year experiment was launched with much fanfare in September 1991. The project was ultimately plagued by problems: depleting oxygen levels, die-off of species, overgrowth of others (like cockroaches, yuck!), difficulty growing enough calories for the biospherians, and politics among the project leaders. With low oxygen and insufficient calories, the biospherians became tired and cranky. About 18 months in, concerned for the volunteers’ health, the project leaders decided to pump supplemental oxygen into the habitat. Touted as “entirely enclosed”, lack of transparency with the media about this decision caused the experiment to come under heavy criticism. Nevertheless, the two year experiment was completed. Ultimately, power struggles within the company resulted in the facility’s sale and now it is owned and operated by the University of Arizona as an environmental research facility. For more about the history and Biosphere 2 story, a new documentary (Spaceship Earth) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. The documentary goes into much more detail about the origin of the concept and includes footage and interviews from the original participants.
I found the whole Biosphere 2 concept to be completely fascinating. The sci-fi geek in me would love to be part of that kind of experiment — for maybe a week or two. Not two years, though! Maybe a Biosphere 2 camp for grownups?