Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona

I enjoyed an interesting excursion last weekend. My father and his wife live in the Tucson, Arizona, area and I try to spend some time with them whenever I’m in town. They invariably take me to fascinating places and have convinced me that there’s a lot more to Tucson than I ever realized before. I mentioned in a passing conversation with them a few weeks ago that I wanted to try to visit the Biosphere 2 facility, which is located just north of Tucson. Lo, my stepmother, made arrangements for us to go last weekend while I was in town on an overnight stay for work.

Biosphere 2 is a grand ecological experiment that was initiated in the late 1980s. I remember hearing about it when I was in high school, but I don’t think I truly understood the significance of the project. The term “biosphere” is synonymous with ecosphere, and particularly deals with the interaction between different ecosystems. Biosphere 2 was so named because the original biosphere is planet Earth with its atmosphere and all of its ecosystems. An introductory video on the tour that we took explained that the earth’s biosphere deals with all living organisms and their interactions with the geosphere (the land masses and formations), the hydrosphere (the water system), and the atmosphere (the air that surrounds the Earth). Biosphere 2 was designed as a recreation of the Earth’s biosphere, with several distinct ecosystems and a closed atmospheric and water system isolated from outside sources of air and water. By manipulating various aspects of Biosphere’s climate, researchers could observe the effects of environmental changes. They were also able to see how the various ecosystems interact and effect a global ecological balance. It was a revolutionary project that changed our understanding of how the world works, and ongoing projects continue to yield new insights into nature’s mysteries.

Biosphere 2 was built at a cost of $150 million. The original project, begun in 1991, involved eight people living confined to the facility for two years. The experiment was fraught with numerous challenges. Divisions arose between members of the crew, and differences of opinion were exacerbated by dietary restrictions and environmental imbalances (higher portions of the Biosphere were essentially abandoned for lack of adequate oxygen). Toward the end of the project the isolation of the Biosphere was compromised to ensure the facility’s sustainability. The project and the crew faced a lot of scrutiny over what was largely viewed as a failed project, yet the venture yielded invaluable insight into the processes that drive our world.

The ocean biome. The sealed off rainforest can be seen in the background.

Biosphere 2 has continued to be used during the last thirty years for continued environmental research. It was owned for several years by New York’s Columbia University, and is currently under the care of the University of Arizona. During our visit there were several ongoing experiments. The rainforest biome (habitat), was sealed off to conduct an experiment called WALD. Researchers were inducing draught conditions to determine how plants adapt their water collection techniques. Another experiment called LEO was evaluating how landscapes form and create conditions suitable for life to develop. In particular, they were looking to see if water flow in basalt soil would activate organic compounds. They also had several other smaller experiments going on, including studies on hydroponics and aquaponics—methods for growing plants without soil.

An aquaponic nursery, similar to what might be used on Mars.

Many of these studies are very significant for exploring Mars. They help us better understand what we will need to do to establish environmentally balanced living conditions on Mars. I was especially intrigued by the work with solar electric power, and closed cycle water and atmospheric systems, because these technologies will be fundamentally critical to survival on Mars. Research conducted at Biosphere 2 also helps us understand conditions that may be favorable for the development of life on Mars so we have a better idea of where to look for past or present extraterrestrial organisms.

Visiting Biosphere 2 inspired my vision of what it will be like to go to Mars, to live in isolation, and to explore the mysteries of our universe. It’s encouraging to me that there were people 30 years ago who were making huge personal and financial sacrifices to prepare the way for us to travel to other planets. Establishing colonies on Mars was specifically mentioned as one of the driving motivators for development of the Biosphere 2 project, and they had a whole section devoted to ideas of how the research conducted there will be used on Mars. If you’re in the area and want to get an idea of what a Mars colony might look like, I highly recommend checking it out.

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