March 16, 2011
[I should reveal that I used to be employed at Biosphere2 more than a decade ago, but have no highly vested interest that would influence me to write positive (or negative) things about the facility today.]
Meteorologically speaking, yesterday was a beautiful day at Biosphere2 in Oracle, AZ. I can hear Goldilocks now: “Not too hot, not too cold, but juuust right.” After a pleasant car ride along the 79, meandering among the anthropomorphic saguaros, jumping cholla, and fragrant creosote, we arrived at Bio2. Bio2 is now managed by the University of Arizona; it used to be under the aegis of Columbia University (New York City).
I haven’t visited Bio2 in many years; I hoped it would evoke the same calming feelings in me it did oh-so-long-ago. Biosphere2 is a powerful place. My perspective here is not one of a particularly spiritual, nor religious vein, but that of a person who has a deep appreciation for the beauty of Biosphere1 (the Earth), the fragility of life, the importance of diversity and the awesomeness of the human endeavor.
There have been some changes to Bio2 since I worked there, including the construction of “casitas,” once used for graduate students enrolled in a Masters program through CU many years ago. Currently, they are used by conference-goers who are lucky enough to have their professional meetings in a local with 360 degrees of mountainous vistas. Interestingly, UofA students designed a rainwater harvesting system for one of the casitas which feeds a drip irrigation system and sustains the toilet flushing needs of the occupants.
Near the admissions area, there is a small gallery that didn’t strike me as an area many visitors frequented, but which housed a brilliant display of images from the surface of Mars – part of UofA’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/).
I was pleased to see that UofA has a number of interesting experiments currently underway on the Bio2 campus and in the works for the near future. There were a number of solar energy harvesting materials about the campus with signage educating visitors regarding the science of using solar power.
On the lawn of Biosphere2, outside the once-residences of the eight intrepid Biospherians, can be found instrumentation allowing for the measurement of carbon dioxide and water exchange between the land surface and the atmosphere. The Eddy Covariance stations collect data at a rate of 10 measurements per second!
Once inside Bio2, we peered into the living quarters of the Biospherians – their kitchen, small “apartments” and bathrooms with ‘wash stations’ (required since the occupants did not use toilet paper).
(The photo below permits a glimpse into the tower in the human habitat – once a quaint, but often hot, library.)
UofA has done a nice job with their exhibits in the lower habitat; these include, but are not limited to, an exploration of the importance and role of water on Earth, as well as a small display of space photographs, advertising the UofA’s SkyCenter at Mt. Lemmon. Thinking about this display and the gallery near admissions, it occurs to me that visitors may not make the connection between Biosphere2 and space exploration that they certainly should; this, to me is one of the most fascinating aspects of Bio2 history.
One of the primary missions of Biosphere2 (a privately funded endeavor that began in the 1980s), was to test the hypothesis that humans could survive in a completely contained environment on celestial bodies other than Earth (e.g., Mars) for long periods of time. Eight Biospherians dedicated 2 years of their lives to testing this hypothesis. For various reasons, including the unexpected levels of activity of aerobic bacteria in the soil in Bio2, the Biospherians were not able to support that hypothesis; however, the mission was a great success with regard to how much was learned about the needs of individuals living in such conditions. The Biospherians grew their own food (wheat, sorgum, sweet potatoes, guava, figs, etc.), thus consuming a primarily vegetarian diet, but they did have chickens, goats and pigs in there with them and ate meat about once a week. The best part is that the humans were not the only primate living in Bio2 — galagos were living it up in the 3.14 acre enclosure, as well! (No, they did NOT eat the galagos!).
Biosphere2 houses 5 biomes, including a tropical rain forest (modeled after the Amazon), savannah, marsh, desert and ocean. UofA researchers plan to put the rainforest through drought conditions; last year the Amazon experienced a rare drought, so these data can help researchers understand the effects of drought on rain forest flora and rates of CO2 production, etc. The structure of Bio2 is amazing – it includes 75,000 struts and special glass that can withstand the impact of grapefruit-sized hail stones. The tour of the interior of Bio2 involves about 1 mile of walking and lots of stair climbing – keep this in mind if you plan to visit with very young or elderly relatives/friends.
In addition to the 5 biomes I mentioned and the living quarters, Bio2 includes an area once referred to as the intensive agricultural biome (IAB). When I was employed there, cottonwood trees were being grown in varying CO2 conditions to assess the impact of climate change on growth rates of plants. Now, the IAB looks empty, but is the new home of the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) project.
It was surprisingly overwhelming for me to be back under the glass of Bio2. I have many fond memories of the time I spent on the campus and of the people with whom I shared that time. Lifelong friendships were born here and I, in some ways, attribute that to the unique shared experience that is living in such a magical, yet often strange, place. I almost hesitate to share those memories because they are so near to my heart, but I will say, if you ever have the chance to be a part of a traveling performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a place such as this, or play a musical instrument in a massive functioning model of a lung, do it. You won’t regret it.
(The photo below was taken inside the south lung of Bio2. This lung and the west lung maintain the pressure inside the giant glass structure.)