Built in 1991 to study the prospects of humans in outer space, the facility is fertile ground for earth science experiments
ORACLE, Arizona—From the outset, the Biosphere 2 project had all the ingredients of a large-scale earth science experiment with profound implications for human survival in outer space.
Could a small group of people live and thrive in a pyramid-shaped building reminiscent of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, sealed off from the world?
The answer was a qualified “yes.”
In September 1991, four men and four women entered the 3.1-acre enclosed facility, named after Earth as the first biosphere, and shut the doors behind them for the next two years.
Inside the massive structure, the team of multi-disciplinary scientists—”biospherians,” as they were called—toiled in the rich soil of a half-acre garden plot, living more or less harmoniously while logging data on the project’s seven model ecosystems.
The key word was “sustainability.”
Then, in 1993, Biosphere 2’s oxygen levels began falling due to the highly active organic soil.
“What ended up happening was oxygen began to tick down, and carbon dioxide began to increase,” said John Adams, Biosphere 2’s deputy director, and chief operations officer.
“It was more a misstep in communication than the system’s biology,” Adams said. “They got wrong some of the chemistry.”
While growing traditional food crops like rice proved highly successful, the harvests lacked sufficient calories, and the biospherians began to lose weight.
“The challenge was trying to feed eight people,” Adams said.
“Nutritionally, they were OK. They were calorie deficient, so they were always hungry. They all went in with a few extra pounds, in their own words, and came out with fewer pounds than they anticipated.”
In September 1993, the privately funded mission ended amidst controversy in the media.
A second and final mission ran into problems in 1994. However, Adams said both projects weren’t failures by any stretch.
The scientific knowledge they yielded helped build on future scientific research as the facility changed hands.
“We learn more from our mistakes than if we do it right every time. No one had ever attempted to build as large of a controlled environment completely sealed in,” Adams said.
In 2007, Ed Bass, financier of the project, donated the 40-acre Biosphere 2 complex to the the University of Arizona whose aim was to generate world-class earth climate studies.
The seven model ecosystems today include a mature rainforest with over 90 tropical tree species, a 687,000-gallon ocean, forested swamps with mango trees, a tropical savannah grassland, a 50,000-square-foot fog desert, and three sloping desert landscapes.
There are also over 300,000 square feet of administrative offices, classroom labs, a conference center, and guest housing.
The facility attracts a variety of science disciplines, such as earth science, botany, biology, soil science, hydrology, ecology, plant physiology, and geochemistry. It is a testament to the long view of project owner Edward Bass, an American businessman philanthropist who built Biosphere 2 in 1991 at a $250 million final cost.
Each model ecosystem, or “biome,” is as close an analog to the real world as it gets.
“There are other analogs worldwide, but the overwhelming majority are open to the atmosphere,” Adams said.
A fete of mechanical engineering, Biosphere 2 presents a futuristic architectural style in a steel-and-glass structure about 90 feet in height that resembles a Mayan pyramid in the Sonoran desert.
The facility has a 7.2 million cubic feet metal frame and 6,500 laminate windows three layers thick and hermetically sealed to provide a secure internal environment.
“It was a natural fit to fold into the university’s portfolio. What we see now are not just initiatives under the glass, but also initiatives that take advantage of the 40 acres the university now owns,” Adams told The Epoch Times.
Columbia University assumed management of Biosphere 2 in 1996 before the University of Arizona took it on a decade later with financial support from Bass.
“I think of Biosphere 2 as the [particle] accelerator for the Earth sciences. We’ve now created an equivalent tool in magnitude and size to understand Earth’s systems,” Adams said.
Adams said Bass wanted Biosphere 2 to stand out architecturally as the world’s largest self-contained earth science laboratory.
The biosphere is the only one that exists in terms of its size and scale as a research facility.
Located in Pinal County in southern Arizona, the complex is striking in appearance, drawing from Mesoamerican influences, and situated in a geographically stable and temperate area surrounded by mountains that enjoys 300 sunny days yearly.
“It’s a remarkable structure. From an engineering perspective, it’s incredible, built in four years,” Adams said.
Biosphere 2 Director Dr. Joaquin Ruiz said the facility is a large template for research projects—an experimental bridge between the laboratory and the real world.
“Because the engineering is so strong, it has a timeless [quality] that it doesn’t look dated,” Ruiz said. “It’s built like a tank.”
The annual cost of running Biosphere 2 is roughly $7 million for a staff of 17, receiving funding through visitation, donations, and the university system. There have been over 300,000 visitors since 1991.
Ruiz said Biosphere 2 brings some of the best scientists together under one geodesic roof to address the significant climate issues of the day.
“Inside the biosphere, we are looking at ways of using the environment to support people,” Ruiz said.
He said whether that’s making a coral species more resilient to ocean warming or measuring the impact of carbon dioxide saturation in the rainforest, Biosphere 2’s mission is vitally important.
Currently, the facility is growing coffee beans and cacao to see how they respond to environmental changes to improve their quality.
“All you see here [involves] fundamental science,” Ruiz told The Epoch Times, “but it’s applied toward economic development.”
Ruiz said a self-contained research facility like Biosphere 2 is beneficial in practical terms in the face of widespread drought and dwindling global food supplies.
“In the past, much of the starvation had to do with policies and economics. We are now at a point where we need to grow more food for our population. So it’s a different environment,” Ruiz said.
“Closer to home, look at Arizona. We are in an existential crisis because of the water. If all the land goes fallow, it’s another dust bowl.”
Biosphere 2 research specialist Jason Deleeuw oversees the new vertical “freight farm” housed in a shipping container that went into operation in June.
The farm uses 88 panels fitted with thousands of blue and red LED lights to foster an optimum climate throughout a seven-week growth cycle.
Deleeuw said Biosphere 2 donates the hydroponically grown produce to local food pantries. Each harvest generates about 115 pounds of food weekly.
“The idea is to harvest one entire wall. We don’t always get that,” Deleeuw told The Epoch Times.
“Eventually, we will use it to study this type of system. Because it’s a freight farm, what we eventually want is to be able to go off-grid.”
About 100 species of tropical plants, insects, and small animals populate Biosphere 2’s rainforest biome, where critical research has occurred over the years.
Adams said the biome in one experiment was saturated with carbon dioxide to see how the plants would respond.
“How do you test that [in the real world]? There’s no big dome you could put over the tropical rainforest,” he said.
The experiment found that CO2 in higher concentrations can limit the “uptake” of CO2 by the rainforest so that it no longer accelerates plant growth.
“Think of it as a sponge. The plants can’t hold any more CO2,” Adams said. “We could show that the model had many correct processes.”
The ocean biome at Biosphere 2 is equally instructive in demonstrating the effects of atmospheric CO2 as carbonic acid in seawater.
Too much carbonic acid interferes with calcium production in many species of coral, leading to massive die-offs.
“We are one of the first places [showing] a negative impact on coral growth. We could see that playing out in many of the world’s oceans today,” Adams said.
Adams said that as an environmental science facility, Biosphere 2 was “ahead of its time.”
“We’re not in the climate change debate,” Adams added. “We’re looking at how to predict, and more accurately predict, the changes we see happening.”
“The research we’re doing here is not looking at what’s causing climate change. What we are doing is [determining] the implications—can we develop tools that will allow us to predict resources?”
Environmental research at Biosphere 2 seeks to learn how to take better care of the planet—”to be better stewards,” Adams said.
“For me—for my daughter and my grandchildren—we want to pass something along so [future generations] will be able to enjoy the same benefits we have today.”