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Phoenix Chapter Travels to Biosphere 2

Posted on Monday, December 2, 2013

Anyone living in Arizona in 1991 probably remembers the opening (make that “closing”) of an experiment in which four men, four women and 3,800 species of plants, insects, and animals were hermetically sealed for two years of isolation in a 3.15-acre world known as Biosphere 2.  The name Biosphere 2 is derived from the idea that it is modeled on earth, the first biosphere.  The eight people would live as if on Mars or the moon, farming their own food and recycling their own water and waste and even the oxygen they breathed.  Their environment consisted of seven separate “biomes,” including an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a tropical rainforest, a savannah grassland and a fog desert.

Several problems arose during the sequestration.  Oxygen depletion occurred due to low plant yield and the unforeseen absorption of oxygen by the concrete and dirt.  The biospherians were breathing air as if on a high Himalayan peak.  Injections of pure oxygen were needed as carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high.  Other problems included low production by the coffee plants, which yielded only enough beans for one cup of coffee per person every two weeks.  The pig population died off, so there was no pork.  The chickens only produced 256 eggs the first year, although they fared better the second year when they were fed the cockroaches that had multiplied.  A medical doctor was on the team and provided regular examinations to the team.  All participants lost weight and most had only 4 – 5% body fat when they emerged after two years.

The Biosphere 2 Project was built by Space Biosphere Ventures in Oracle, Arizona, between 1987 and 1991 at a cost of $150 million.  Texas billionaire Ed Bass was the chief financier for the project.  The property has changed hands over the years, first being run by Columbia University; ownership was assumed by University of Arizona in 2011.

According to its mission statement, the purpose of Biosphere 2 is “to serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe.”

Biosphere 2 is situated on 3.15 acres on a 40 acre campus.  It has 7,200,000 cubic feet of sealed glass and 6,500 windows and stands 91 feet at the highest point.  It is sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner.  The mechanics of the biosphere include the Technosphere and the Energy System.  The Technosphere is located in the basement area and houses the electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems.  There are 26 air handlers which heat and cool the air, remove particles, maintain humidity levels and generate condensate water (for rain, fog and resupplying the ocean).  The Energy Center contains two large generators to maintain proper conditions for the living organisms inside and for ongoing experiments.  It also has boilers to heat the water and chillers to cool the water.

Biosphere 2 functions as a department of the University of Arizona College of Science.  Within Biosphere there are two divisions, B2 Earthscience and B2 Institute.  B2 Earthscience is utilizing the unique attributes of Biosphere 2 to conduct research that cannot be accomplished anywhere else by anyone else.  B2 Institute is addressing scientific Grand Challenges whose solutions require the combined expertise of a broad range of scientific fields and diverse interdisciplinary talents.  Both divisions provide education for students and outreach to community members.

The first major renovation of Biosphere 2 is underway.  The Landscape Evolution Observatory, known as LEO, consists of three huge landscapes constructed inside an environmentally controlled greenhouse facility.  LEO will investigate how water, carbon and energy move through the landscape and aims to address fundamental “grand challenges” in Earth systems science:
*How will Earth’s landscapes change as climate changes?
*How do water, energy and carbon move through landscapes?
*How do biological systems (vegetation and microbes) modify landscapes?
*How will terrestrial water resources alter with climate change?

The first landscape of LEO is operational and the remaining two should be completed this year.  Stay tuned!!