Thursday, January 14, 2010

Biosphere 2: An Arizona Relic Roars to Life

Writing for the e-zine Sphere, author David Knowles explores awakening interest among climate scientists in Southern Arizona's iconic - if misunderstood - Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2's Second Chapter: Climate Change

(Jan. 12) -- Long ridiculed as a symbol of scientific self-indulgence run amok, the Biosphere 2 facility in Arizona is suddenly proving to be an important tool in understanding global climate change.

Over the past 15 years, experiments conducted at Biosphere 2 by researchers from Columbia University and the University of Arizona have helped shape scientific understanding of how climate change will affect the planet. The story of the facility's evolution, however, is as entertaining as it is surprising.

Great Hopes

Biosphere 2 was built by Space Biospheres Ventures in the late 1980s at a cost of $200 million. The project was heralded around the world as the experiment that would eventually lead to the colonization of other planets. The concept was to create a sustainable ecosystem entirely sealed off from the outside world.

Biosphere 2
Lonely Planet/
No longer a sealed-off environment, Biosphere 2 now offers guided tours.
Inside 7.2 million cubic feet of sealed glass, several artificial environments were created, from desert to rain forest to a coral reef. Spanning 3.14 acres -- the size of several football fields -- the scale of the facility, which is about 25 north of Tucson, was unprecedented.

In 1991, along with a number of animals including goats, chickens, birds and fish, eight human researchers were locked inside the structure for the next two years.

What followed is said to have inspired the creators of the reality television program "Big Brother," in which human beings forced to live together in a restricted space often turn on one another. Factions among the researchers developed. Romantic relationships blossomed and died.

In terms of science, Biosphere 2 was no less free of drama. Due to a series of improper calculations, oxygen levels plummeted over the the two-year period as carbon dioxide spiked. Ants and cockroaches overran the facility, and a great number of the animals died.

Financial and managerial problems plagued the project as well, forcing the facility to shut down altogether in 1994. All in all, if Biosphere 2 was meant to demonstrate a possible future for the human race, that future looked rather bleak.

Second Life

After a year of entropy, Biosphere 2 was sold to an investment company, which, in turn, allowed New York's Columbia University to manage the property. Under Columbia's supervision, the focus of the project shifted to the study of how the high concentrations of carbon dioxide inside the structures affected plant life. Biosphere 2, it turned out, was a great laboratory for tracking the effects of climate change on a number of different ecosystems.

"They were able to show that as more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, coral reefs are endangered and die off," said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science at the University of Arizona, who now oversees Biosphere 2.

According to Ruiz, Biosphere 2's initial attempts at creating a fully enclosed system have produced a unique tool to study a similarly enclosed environment: Earth's. "Because of its scale, there is no other facility like it."

Researchers at the University of Arizona have made important findings about the effects of drought on varying species of trees planted inside the biosphere more than two decades ago.

"We like to say that the Biosphere 2 was built slightly before its time," Ruiz said. "But now, it has become one of the best places to study the effects of climate change."

Biosphere 2 has also regained its appeal as a tourist attraction, drawing nearly 70,000 visitors in 2009.

David Knowles

David Knowles

A musician and a novelist, David has covered politics for AOL for the past three years. His writing has appeared in such publications as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.


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