Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 is 7.2 million ft3 enclosed earth systems science research facility that contains 5 biomes used for large scale ecological experimentation. Most people have heard of Biosphere 2 because of the closed system human missions in the early 1990s wherein people were sealed inside the structure, living self-sufficiently for 2 years; the second mission ended prematurely in the dissolution of the management enterprise and a fair bit of drama which received a great deal of publicity. Since that time, the facility has been revamped to operate as a flow though system – meaning it is no longer a sealed, closed system – and now serves as a research vessel for ecological systems experimentation and education under the management of the University of Arizona.

It was fascinating to learn about the research being done at Biosphere 2 during the 90 minute tour, but even just the experience of walking through the place itself was awesome. The glass-enclosed greenhouse is huge, covering more than 3 acres, and is 91 feet in height at its maximum. Experiencing the biomes inside was incredible too: overlooking the ocean, walking into the hot, high-humidity rainforest, and then through mangrove, savannah, and desert. After we passed through the biomes the tour went underground into the tunnels to allow us to see the huge pipes, air handlers,and water systems that regulate each of the different areas. We then finished up inside the huge geodesic dome that houses one of the two “lungs” that regulate air pressure within the glass structure. These structures are amazing and are an ingenious solution to absorbing the excess air pressure generated by the expansion of heated air during the day. As higher pressure air flows from the greenhouse into the lungs the force will slowly move the huge steel plate suspended inside the lung upwards, allowing the rubber membrane to balloon outwards; at night the cooling air inside the greenhouse creates a vacuum and sucks the air back from the inflated lung. On the tour we entered the south lung along the same passageway as the air would have moved back and forth and sealed the door behind us, watching as the plate gently bobbed in place in reaction to the airflow. But it wasn’t until our tour guide opened the other door that we were able to see it sink quickly as the air rushed out of the cavernous space.

Other than just being able to walk through the greenhouse and understanding how it all worked, the tour provided a great deal of information about all the different types of research being conducted inside the greenhouse – and how the facility provides unique opportunities for earth systems science experimentation. Biosphere 2 offers ecosystems within controlled environments that allow laboratory experiments may be scaled up; for example, a smaller experiment may involve the control of water of oxygen to individual plants or a small collection of plants, but the contained biomes in Biosphere 2 allow researchers to go further to “predict ecosystem response to environmental change” without suffering the loss of controls that would occur in actual ecosystems. This is truly invaluable in order to understand the complex systems that actually exist on earth and the effect of human action upon them. Recent scientific projects included research into drought condition in the savannah, the impact of rising carbon dioxode levels in the rainforest, the rate of rock weathering and the creation of soil on desert rock by microorganisms, and a longer-term project designed to alter the ocean biome to mimic a “desert ocean,” of the Gulf of California in order to conduct experiments related to global warming. With a focus on using an interdisciplinary approach in order to understand the complexity of the natural world, Biosphere 2 is committed to creating models that will help us address issues related to climate change and the impact of man on the environment.

Exterior of Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of Biosphere 2, Arizona

Fruit trees in human food productions section of greenhouse, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Fruit trees in human food productions section of greenhouse, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Looking down on ocean biome and across to rainforest biome inside glass, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Looking down on ocean biome and across to rainforest biome inside glass, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Ocean biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Ocean biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Inside rainforest biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Inside rainforest biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Inside the rainforest biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Inside the rainforest biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Rainforest biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Rainforest biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Walkway with tour group ahead of me, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Walkway with tour group ahead of me, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Looking out over ocean biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Looking out over ocean biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Savannah biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Savannah biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Sonoran desert biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Sonoran desert biome, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Experiment on weathering of rock by microbes, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Experiment on weathering of rock by microbes, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Sonoran desert, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Sonoran desert, Biosphere 2, Arizona

In the underground tunnels where the environmental regulatory systems are located, Biosphere 2, Arizona

In the underground tunnels where the environmental regulatory systems are located, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Descending though tunnel to lung, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Descending though tunnel to lung, Biosphere 2, Arizona

South lung used to maintain air pressure inside the glass structure, Biosphere 2, Arizona

South lung used to maintain air pressure inside the glass structure, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of lung, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Exterior of lung, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Biosphere 2 doesn’t just host work directly using the biomes however but a variety of other projects, two of which I found incredible interesting. The first, the Landscape Evolution Observatory, is a multidisciplinary research project that examines the dynamic interactions within the entire system – water, soil, plants, microbes, and air – over time. Basically, how a change in one component impacts every part of the system and how do other things such as microbes and soil adapt to these changes. Three artificial landscapes, nearly a hundred feet in length and containing local soil at a uniform depth of 1 meter, have been set up to mimic slopes naturally occurring in nearby watersheds, replicating actual conditions. These mammoth slopes are measured by over 1,800 sensors that monitor water, carbon, and the chemical changes. Over time as microbe communities grow and begin impacting the physical forms of the land, these changes will be monitored as well. Scientists are hoping to use this data to gain information on how real life complex systems work (as opposed to only isolated elements that can be measured in a laboratory) and how they may be affected by climate change as manifested in altered water and temperatures.

Landscape evolution observatory, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Landscape evolution observatory, Biosphere 2, Arizona

The other project I found fascinating was a prototype of the Lunar Greenhouse Module (LGH), a closed loop, integrated food production and waste removal system. The project started as a sustainable life support system for space: a system designed to provide 100% of the necessary oxygen and fresh water, approximately 50% of the calories, and 100% of the waste composting necessary for each person. A first prototype of this type of basic life support system is in use at the Antarctic research station where it produces food for 50 resident scientists. The version at Biosphere 2 is a collapsible design that can be easily transported to the moon or the planet Mars where it is hoped that it can sustain 4 astronauts. It is currently producing sweet potatoes, chickpeas, lettuce, and strawberries. But the greenhouse module has far-reaching implications as well and technological knowledge gained can be applied to earthbound issues such as food security. Existing urban farms are presently producing large quantities of fresh produce (though mostly lettuces, unlike the variety in the LGH) but at large environmental costs – high-level, nonsustainable energy inputs, outputs that are not utilized and recycled into compost, and other inputs such as continuous artificial fertilizer and nutrients. Further optimization of the LGH system could help address these issues by finding cost-effective ways to apply them to larger-scale food production systems, making them more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Lunar greenhouse habitat, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Lunar greenhouse habitat, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Lunar greenhouse habitat, Biosphere 2, Arizona

Lunar greenhouse habitat, Biosphere 2, Arizona

What I really loved about Biosphere 2 was their commitment to education and active research on all levels. Fieldwork using the biomes or lab space is hardly limited to professional scientists; active, participatory research inside Biosphere 2 is being conducted by college, high school, and even elementary-age youth. One of the most fascinating examples was an self-designed aquaponics experiment that was independently developed and built by high school students. In this experiment they have set up a stream environment using running water over volcanic pumice that will grow algae. With this algae they will then feed tilapia fish. The waste from the tilapia will hopefully be filtered using the same volcanic rock system and then used as fertilizer to grow lettuce and tomato plants. This is an impressive project by any standards but the development and creation of this closed loop system by high schoolers is mind-blowing.

High school aquaponics experiement, Biosphere 2, Arizona

High school aquaponics experiement, Biosphere 2, Arizona

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