ORACLE — The University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 has reopened to the public.

The facility in Pinal County closed to visitors due to COVID-19 in March, then reopened for driving tours in August. Now, visitors are welcome to walk the grounds again but should anticipate changes.

“We have developed a new app that will allow visitors to explore the facility at their own pace while keeping socially distant from other visitors,” said Katie Morgan, manager of ocean systems and education initiatives at Biosphere 2. “We are confident this new experience will provide visitors with a fun and safe way to interact with the facility.”

Biosphere 2 was created in the 1980s by a businessman and philanthropist who wanted to research and develop self-sustaining space-colonization technology. Two missions, between 1991 and 1994, sealed eight people inside the glass enclosure to measure survivability. After the facility changed hands multiple times, UArizona began leasing the property in 2007 and bought it in 2011 to serve as a tool to support scientists studying Earth systems and the consequences of climate change. The facility also was opened for public tours.

Planning a trip to Biosphere 2, located about 45 minutes north of Tucson, will require visitors to purchase tickets online and select a time to visit. This allows for crowd control and hourly cleanings, said Biosphere 2 Deputy Director John Adams. Face masks also are required.

Choose your own adventure

Visitors can download the Biosphere 2 Experience app on their smartphones. As they exit the facility’s visitor center, they will begin walking a one-way path with 16 stops marked by numbered signs.

“We made sure we put a lot of history into this app,” Morgan said. “There are Biosphere 2 archival photos and videos available on the app that can’t be found online, making this a totally different experience than before.”

The app is also rich in information about the current research projects running in the facility’s Landscape Evolution Observatory, the rainforest, the ocean, the model city project and more.

“The nice thing is you can explore at your own pace,” Adams said. “This new experience allows you to tailor your visit. We’ve layered the information so visitors, if they so choose, can dive deeper into any subjects. Over time, we will continue to add and expand content as we roll out new research and experiences.”

A new path

To accommodate social distancing, the Biosphere 2 team has modified the path through the grounds so that it is only one way.

“We were able to build on the existing trail system and add an extension into the rainforest,” Adams said.

This upper portion is ADA accessible, meaning it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After visiting the scenic overlooks, visitors can enter Biosphere 2 through the original airlock, round the domes and go into the rainforest through a new entrance. Then, they can work their way through the dense foliage of the rainforest to an overlook of the million-gallon experimental ocean through the upper savanna before exiting in the upper habitat dining area and kitchen.

“Of the 16 stops, more than half are on the exterior,” Adams said. “We’ve got scenic overlooks along the path that offer spectacular views of the property and surrounding landscape. There is also a stop to view Biosphere 2’s lungs — large air chambers designed to ensure the facility would never become over- or under-pressurized.”

The team at Biosphere 2 is planning to extend the app and the path under the glass later this year.

“We’re finishing up the desert trail extension,” Adams said, “which will allow access to all the biomes on a one-way trail.”

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Mikayla Mace is a writer for University Communications at the University of Arizona.

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