In the mountains north of Tucson is a feat of human engineering built for one experiment, now being used for many. It made world headlines in the 90s and of course everyone had an opinion of whether it was a success or failure. My last stop of the day trip to Green Valley was at Biosphere 2.
Originally built in the 1990s as an experimental facility for potential space colonization, Biosphere 2 is now owned and operated by the University of Arizona as a laboratory for cross-discipline, multi-organizational experiments.
The original experiment
I don’t really remember the original experiment other than it happened. I knew someone built a facility that recreated multiple biomes to sustain life, and I knew there was a comedic movie made about the premise. Other than that I was unfamiliar with the purpose of the biosphere.
The massive vivarium was completed in 1991 and was a completely closed system with researchers and staff entering through airlocks. In September 1991, the first mission began with eight researchers sealed in the structure of two years without any outside air, water, food, or people. There was a second mission done a little later for only six months.
Some people said they were a success while others said the experiments were failures. I’ll let you form your own opinion.
Biosphere 2 is now owned and operated by the U of A. They use it for multi-year experiments to better understand the world we live in. It is quite fascinating.
The tour starts with a brief video explaining a little about the facility and its history. From there you could just wander the paths through the biomes and out the lung. There were docents scattered along the paths that could answers questions. I guess usually it is a guided tour. I think I preferred the self-guided tour since you can go at your own pace and get multiple points of view from multiple docents instead of just one tour guide’s perspective.
From the video I wandered out and looked into what were originally used as the farm domes. It is where the occupants grew their food. It is currently being used for a 10-year experiment exploring how water travels through substrate on hills. Currently, there are just some specially designed “hills” with dirt that get rained on. Later they will add grasses and then other vegetation to see how it changes the flow of water.
Down the hall are the living quarters from the original experiment and then the biomes. Originally the biomes were all open to each other, but now they are cordoned off to better control temperature, humidity, etc.
The biggest biome is the rainforest. It’s extremely humid and full of dense foliage that has thrived since first planted. In this giant vivarium they are currently seeing how periods of drought affect the rainforest. The next few biomes are all in the same space. There’s an ocean environment on one side and grasslands on the other side of the path.
Down the way are more arid grasslands and a mangrove swamp. This leads to the final biome – the fog desert.
After the desert you go into the bowels of the system underneath it all where they have water storage and the circulation system. Perhaps the coolest part of these behind-the-scenes areas is the lung. This is what made the closed system work. It allowed for changes in air pressure and temperature without leaks or breaking the seals or windows.
Anyway, after exiting the lung, I found my way to the ocean viewing area where you can look through windows into the ocean like an aquarium. There were a few fish species left from the original experiment, but there are plans to change the ocean biome to a different kind of ocean, so changes are coming soon.
Biosphere 2 is a modern marvel. It is a man-made wonder. It is a feat of engineering. This grand glass terrarium has taught us a lot and will teach us tones more about the original biosphere – Earth. If you find yourself in Arizona, go visit Biosphere 2.
Until next time, remember adventure is out there, so go have one!