Biosphere 2 was built in the late 1980s at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains, but it looks like it belongs on another planet years in the future. The science fiction architecture reflected the founders’ hope that knowledge gained from the closed ecological system would lead to humans building similar structures on other planets and living in outer space.
Today, the facility serves as a laboratory for scientific research to discover how to survive on Biosphere 1, Earth, as it’s ravaged by climate change. The futuristic complex outside the town of Oracle is also a center for public education and outreach.
“Our research covers every aspect of sustainability right now,” says Katie Morgan, Biosphere 2’s program coordinator for marine science education and outreach. “It’s a huge focus.”
Biosphere 2 is the world’s largest closed ecological system. It’s likely the only building on Earth to house a sea that contains a coral reef, a mangrove wetland, a tropical rainforest, a savanna grassland and a fog desert, all next door to one another, or in some cases, separated by a few feet and no door. Because it’s unique, it attracts scientists from many specialty areas who work together, Morgan says.
“Some research can only be done in a controlled environment like we have here,” Morgan says.
For instance, “it’s really hard to do ocean research in the ocean.” A hypothesis that coral dying in the South Pacific would grow better somewhere 1,000 miles away can’t be tested outside because the cost, time and logistics wouldn’t allow the coral to be moved. “At Biosphere, you can control temperature, salinity, bacteria, algae,” Morgan says.
According to its website, Biosphere 2 has seen more than 3 million visitors since 1991. It offers daily public tours and hosts conferences with overnight accommodations. It also hosts K-12 programs, including teacher development classes, student field trips and tours, and weeklong summer programs with accommodations. More than 10,000 K-12 students a year visit, Morgan says.
The facility receives some of its funding from these visits and more from the university, donations and grants, Morgan says.
“We like to tell people about our Earth. We hope they have an appreciation for it after they leave,” she says.
Texan Edward Bass, heir to an oil fortune and interested in space colonization, funded the $150 million construction of Biosphere 2. He and John Allen, an engineer and ecologist, conceived the idea of the original Biosphere 2 experiment.
In 1991, eight people dressed in identical, Star Trek-like uniforms walked past TV cameras and reporters to seal themselves inside Biosphere 2. They were to stay inside for two years to test whether human beings could survive by growing their own food in such a closed environment. According to various media accounts, one of the residents lost 54 pounds because of a lack of calories. Another sliced off a finger, left for medical attention, then came back with a duffel bag that may or may not have been filled with supplies in violation of the experiment’s ground rules.
In 1994, a second mission, with an intended length of 10 months, was cut short after drama that included federal marshals coming on site to seize the premises, and two of the eight participants of the first mission vandalizing the building from the outside. Steve Bannon, more than 20 years before he landed in the White House as Donald Trump’s chief strategist, took over management of the building.
Media attention turned negative, with newspapers running headlines such as “Bogus new world” and Time magazine calling Biosphere 2 one of the 100 worst ideas of the century. The low point may have been the 1996 parody movie “BioDome” starring Pauly Shore.
Columbia University took over management of the campus from 1996-2003 and changed the focus to earth science research. The University of Arizona took over management in 2007 and has owned the property since 2011.
After the 1990s, media coverage turned more positive. In 2009, a special book published by Time Life Books listed Biosphere 2 as one of the “50 Must-See Natural and Man-made Marvels” in the world.
When you walk into Biosphere 2’s rainforest, you notice the humidity and the smell. Organic gases, such as isoprene, released by tree leaves cause the smell.
Ty Taylor earned his Ph.D at UA in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He studies how tropical forests respond to and affect climate. When he’s not in tropical rainforests in South America, he uses the tropical rainforest at Biosphere 2 to search for the answer to a question.
“Why do only some trees make isoprene?” Taylor asks.
It’s important because producing isoprene helps leaves handle stress from the increased heat caused by global warming, and these kinds of gases affect cloud formation. Clouds drop rain and cool the climate by reflecting sunlight.
Taylor invented a portable instrument that measures isoprene production in the field.
“I call it ‘the pig,’” Taylor says. The name is taken from PORCO, which is short for “Photoionization of Organic Compounds.”
According to Taylor, “there are no tropical forests that currently exist at the temperatures that all will soon see. Therefore there is no way to observe the future. Except at Biosphere 2. Being in a greenhouse in Arizona, the Biosphere 2 tropical forest sees higher temperatures than natural forests. Only there can we control those temperatures, and even combine them with drought. ... The particular insights I have gained could only be gotten at Biosphere 2.”
Morgan says there are typically 40 of these research projects going on at Biosphere 2 at any one time, some of which you can read about at the website biosphere2.org.
“The focus for the next 10 years is the nexus between food, water and energy,” Morgan says.
The biggest project right now is LEO, Landscape Evolution Observatory, which UA calls “the biggest earth science experiment ever built.” It is partly funded by a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
“That is the project right now,” Morgan says.
LEO scientists have built three slopes indoors to replicate watersheds in Biosphere 1, Earth itself. This way, scientists can control conditions on the slopes such as temperature, moisture and soil composition, which would be impossible in Biosphere 1. The three slopes are each at a 10-degree angle. Hundreds of sensors in the soil measure water, temperature and chemistry.
Researchers hope to learn more about erosion on slopes and “watershed management,” Morgan says. “Where does the water go when it rains? That will tell us where to build a well.”
Workers hollowed out the “farm” room, where the original eight Biospherians grew food, and used the area for the LEO slopes. The construction in 2011 included soil, sensors, a rain system and 66 sprinkler heads on each slope.
Scientists will study how water, energy and carbon interact and how vegetation, topography and other factors affect the movement of rainwater through the watershed, Morgan says.
Other research at Biosphere 2 focuses on ocean health. Before UA managed Biosphere 2, high carbon dioxide levels and acidification killed most of the species in the facility’s 700,000-gallon sea. Too much algae grew. What’s happening to oceans around the world mirrors what happened in that room at Biosphere 2.
“We are having to figure out how to clean it up and get ahead of the (algae) growth process,” Morgan says. “The goal is to regrow healthy coral in the ocean.”
Agrivoltaics researchers are exploring the mutual benefits of growing crops underneath solar panels. When solar panels get too warm, their efficiency decreases. The evaporation of water from the plants increases the panels’ efficiency, and the shade from the panels decreases the amount of water necessary to grow the crops.
Other research involves “hydroponics,” or growing crops without soil. A display shows a “Prototype Lunar Greenhouse” inside a pod that would be appended to a spaceship and theoretically supply astronauts with half the calories needed for a mission.
Biosphere 2 is open to the public, and guided tours are offered each day. The cost is $20 for an adult, $18 for seniors and $13 for children 6-12. Special events are also held with varying costs.
The daily tour lasts about 75 minutes. It begins with a short video and is followed by an invitation for self-exploration of parts of the facility.
An aquaponics display that tour groups walk past was established with the help of high school students. Visitors see a staircase-shaped display whose top is a tank filled with water and fish. The water from the tank, fertilized with fish waste, flows down through plants placed in lava rocks rather than soil.
“It requires a tenth of the water of traditional farming,” Morgan says. “They recycle the water over and over. The public loves it. We have had three people go home and build one of these. A school from Italy came in August, and went back and set up their own system. They see this as something they can do to help the environment.”
On one public tour in April, guide Orville Bell led a group of about 35 people through or past each of the five biomes: the sea, mangrove wetland (saltwater marsh), rainforest, savanna grassland and desert.
Bell spoke about the past, present and future of the facility. When we arrived at the desert, he told us cacti have an addiction gene. “All a cactus wants to do is drink itself to death,” Bell says. It’s why saguaro cacti won’t grow in Biosphere 2’s desert. “It’s too moist. It rots.”
After we explored above ground, we descended into the basement, the “technosphere.”
“There are 3.5 acres of life in the Biosphere above ground. Below ground, the technosphere, there are 2.5 acres of machines to support the 3.5 acres of life,” Bell says.
We made a stop inside one of the two “lungs,” buildings with flexible roofs that expand and contract as needed to equalize air pressure. This prevents Biosphere 2 from exploding or imploding.
The tour ended outdoors, where Bell explained the LEO project and invited us to enjoy “the marvel of this building.”
“It’s a tremendous research facility. Be proud of it if you are an Arizonan.” | PW