Yesterday Cooper and I discovered Biosphere 2, an earth sciences lab now being run by the University of Arizona’s Science Department. Visiting this amazing facility has been on our list of “things to do” since we first arrived in Tucson four months ago, and with time growing short (we leave here on March 28), we needed to check this experience off our list.
Biosphere 2 was the built in the early 90’s as a research experiment at a cost of $150 million, funded by the Bass family of Texas. The idea was to create a closed biome experiment where people could be sustained (potentially on other planets) by growing their own food, creating their own oxygen from the plants and “ocean” within the structure, and recycling water for human use.
What is Biosphere 2?
Why is it called Biosphere 2? Did the first one burn down? This question was asked by a student on the tour. The guide proceeded to remind us that the Earth is Biosphere 1. Biosphere 2 is an imperfect reproduction of Earth. Deemed by some to be a failed experiment, in truth it was a resounding success (at least in my eyes).
A crew of seven was sealed within the Biosphere for a period of two years. During that time, they grew their own food but found that they were unable to produce enough protein. They were always tired. To climb the multiple stairs within this facility, they had to stop often to get more oxygen and to fight the fatigue. The coral reef died. There were (of course) human interaction problems and two factions with differing opinions formed. But despite these “failures”, the experiments were a success. At least with the technology they had available to them 20 years ago, they learned that there is so much more we don’t know than we do know about how all of the systems of Earth work together. Here is a link to a video by one of the crew members. And here is a good explanation about the project.
The fabulous part of the Biosphere 2 project is that it continues today as a fabulous experiment-lab to help answer questions about our ecosystems. Turned over to the University of Arizona in 2009 and purchased by them in 2011, the emphasis of experiments today is on water. In the dry deserts of the Southwest, water is at a premium. We do not totally understand how water works in the desert, how evaporation or synthesis or rate of absorption into our aquifers occurs. We know some, but that has only created more questions. How wonderful it is that this laboratory, the only one of its kind in the world, exists to help us more fully understand our world.
Cooper and I took a tour to learn more about Biosphere 2. Although the tour guide treated us much like 10-year-olds, sharply ordering us to stand here and walk there, once we all complied he was a wealth of information. Basically there are three components to the Biosphere; the green house and experiment labs, the mechanical infrastructure to make the sealed environment work, and the living quarters for the crew members. The green house and labs took up most of the facility. They tried to create a tropical forest, grasslands, an ocean and a desert, along with a huge “farm” for growing their food. They also had a few chickens and pigs as a source of protein. The “ocean” provided fish and algae, as well as oxygen, and the desert provided options for water experiments. (I am a little vague on what each of these areas was used for because he didn’t elaborate much, but I know all the regions were necessary to replicate the Earth.)
What fascinated me more than the green house and the plants and the living quarters, was HOW it all worked. The mechanical infrastructure was enormous. The systems needed to operate the Biosphere were endless and HUGE. The most amazing part, at least to me, was how they controlled the atmospheric pressure within the structure. We all know that atmospheric pressure controls our weather, creating clouds and rain or fair weather and sun. It rises as falls depending on conditions created all over the Earth. Without controlling the atmospheric pressure in the structure, there was the possibility of the glass panes either imploding or exploding. To control the pressure within the structure, scientists from several disciplines had to create an internal “lung” that would breathe with the changes. The enormity of this task boggles my mind.
Inside the “lung” are several different components. The roof of the lung is made from thick rubber that is able to expand and contract as the pressure within the lung changes. The floating disc in the middle (the table-looking thing with legs) rests on the floor at night when the pressure is low, pulling the rubber down and contracting the space, and magically rises during the day as the outside pressure rises and draws the disc up, expanding the space. The air within the whole Biosphere is controlled by this lung, keeping the pressure inside equal to the pressure outside. People way smarter than I am realized there would be a need for something like this before the structure was even built.
It was this lung that led me to those questions the guide was unable to answer. How long did it take to plan this facility before actual construction began? What scientific disciplines were involved? Just think of the engineering that was necessary. What systems did the planners miss in the planning? How much training did the crew have (on the mechanical systems they had to keep running as well as the experiments they planned to perform) before being enclosed within the Biosphere? Could they get information from the outside if there was something they didn’t know? With “Bass family” money funding the project, did someone “find” the Bass family for funding or was this experiment an idea of theirs? There were so many questions about how this whole project came to be, but the tour guide has only been involved since the university became involved. He didn’t know anything but the basics about its origin. Wikipedia gives the most information I can find.
As a side note, I have to say how impressed I am with the University of Arizona as a whole. From the Kitt Peak Observatory, to the Biosphere 2, to the Arizona State Museum and the archeology/anthropology department, Arizona has been in the forefront of discoveries. I am sure there is so much more about the university to learn but I think I would have considered UA back in the day if I had known more. We have loved our winter here in Tucson and it would have been a fabulous place to go to college. Maybe next winter I will even take some classes when we return.