By Amanda Cardini, Editor-in-Chief
In an otherwise unassuming small town lies a scientific wonder of the sci-fi sort. Oracle, Arizona is home to Biosphere 2, and holds a history that seems as though it should be the setting of a thrilling science fiction movie. Last weekend I had the opportunity to take a tour of the facilities, and learn about the advanced research teams are conducting there today.
Biosphere 2 was created in the 1980s, by a brilliant team of researchers and engineers who wanted to study whether it would be possible to recreate Earth’s biomes in a man-made facility. Earth is known as the biosphere, which is why the team named their replica Biosphere 2. The main goal in the construction of the biosphere was to see whether it would be possible for humans to create and live in a self-sustaining colony in outer space. To accomplish this incredible feat, teams consisting of members from all around the world came together to build the 7.2 million cubic foot structure, made up of glass and steel frames.
Inside, the teams created five ecosystems, including a rainforest, ocean, coastal fog desert, grassland, and a mangrove wetland. Plants, animals and organisms were brought in from around the world to create the biomes. The rainforest section has trees that are now decades old, stretching to the very tops of the Biosphere’s glass ceiling; our tour guide informed us that they would happily burst right through the glass if the research team didn’t keep cutting them back. It also has a running waterfall, and more greenery than you’ll find anywhere else in Arizona.
The ocean once included an entire coral reef, though the reef has now suffered from algae build up, and is currently undergoing research intended to bring it back to its former glory. However, you can still find many breeds of fish or micro-organisms alive and well within the ocean. This area of the Biosphere even has a beach, and a wave machine allows small waves to wash upon the shore periodically.
Beneath the structure lies what the researchers refer to as the “Technosphere.” This area is entirely underground and spans 3.14 acres. The plumbing, electrical and other technological equipment that keep the Biosphere running, are located here. Some of the features allow for temperature and humidity control within the biomes, and allow researchers to manipulate the environments.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was “the lung.” In the 1990s, the Biosphere was sealed from the outside world in an attempt to truly mimic how a structure like this would have to operate in space. The researchers were concerned that because the Biosphere was mostly made up of glass, the Arizona sun would likely heat the air trapped inside, causing it to expand and break the many panes of glass. To counteract this effect, they built a major geodesic dome, known as the lung, that would regulate the air pressure. A long tunnel funneled air into the lung, where a massive, several tons-weighted, metal plate was attached to a rubber membrane at the top of the dome. The air expansion, and change in temperatures throughout the biosphere, collected in this area, and the rubber membrane allowed the metal plate to rise or fall with the changes. On the floor was a tank where water could be collected from condensation in the air. This water was then saved and recycled for other uses. The marvel of the lung could never fully be explained in an article or through images, and I highly recommend any readers interested to pay Oracle a visit to check this out first-hand. It is truly something to marvel at, and shows the genius of the scientists that designed it.
Despite the scientific wonder of the lung, what attracted me to the Biosphere was the experiments that were conducted long ago. In the 1990s, two studies took place in which researchers were sealed inside the Biosphere, and tasked with attempting to live as they would if the structure was located in space. The first study consisted of four men and four women, and lasted for two years. The “Biospherians,” as they were called, lived only on the resources within the Biosphere, and quite successfully; they managed to grow 80 percent of their food (the Biosphere contained an agriculture section at that time that provided plants and animals), recycle water and sewage, and reuse their production. This meant that they were as dependent on the individual ecosystems inside as the ecosystems were on them for survival.
One of the Biospherians remarked on how incredible it was to be in such a small, enclosed space with nature, “We got our water from condensing it from the atmosphere, so if I boiled a cup of tea, I drink the tea, it leaves me, and goes into our waste recycling system, and then it would be used for irrigation water. By the time that molecule has been taken out of the air and gone through me and back into the soil, it will be possibly returning to the atmosphere in a matter of days to weeks.” This meant the Biospherians were quite literally consuming the same molecules over and over again.
But it wasn’t just environmental science that occurred in the Biosphere. Issues such as rising carbon dioxide levels occurred, and conflict arose, perhaps understandably for so few people being stuck in one place and dealing with such critical issues. Eventually the study ended to diffuse the tensions, and to return the Biospherians to safety, as what had started out as a study for life in outer space had turned into a social psychology experiment. As my tour guide described it, “The original idea was for researchers to enter the biosphere to study, not to be studied.”
Today, human experiments are not a part of the research done at the Biosphere, and it is no longer sealed from the outside world. Now, the Biosphere focuses on studying ways that we can turn back the clock on climate change, and live sustainably. The teams working on it now focus on emerging research like aquaponics, a method of farming that uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods by utilizing fish. Another example is with the coral reef in the ocean biome; the Biosphere plans to bring in a researcher from Australia who has bred a specific type of coral that she believes could undo coral bleaching. This will be tested in the Biosphere’s ocean, and if positive results are shown, it could be used on bleached coral reefs in the real world.
There are some truly amazing things happening at the Biosphere. The studies being conducted there are certainly the way of the future, and give hope for a brighter outlook on important issues like climate change. If you have a free weekend and are up to making the trek down to Oracle, I do not think you will regret it.