Biosphere 2 was built to host the world's largest, longest-term, and most famous experiment in Closed Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS), hosting a crew of eight people for two years, 1991-1993, in a three-acre, air-sealed facility. It has six biomes: Rainforest, Savannah, Desert, Wetland, Ocean, and the Intensive Agriculture module. The agricultural area has been mostly cleared to accommodate a large new experiment, the Landscape Evolution Observatory; only a small orchard remains. Originally built by a company called Space Biospheres Ventures, the facility is now run by the University of Arizona. Ben visited on February 20, 2015, and has this to report:
Biosphere 2 is no longer a CELSS per se. Neither air nor water is closed. They actually often run experiments that run water through an ecosystem only once. That said, Biosphere 2 is still the largest climate controlled ecological research center in the world. They can vary temperature, humidity and some other factors pretty much at will. Their biggest experiment these days is the Landscape Evolution Observatory, to run for 10 years. Basically replaced the intensive agriculture biome with large inclined planes covered with crushed lava. They are going to watch the lava as it evolves into soil.
The vents that were put into the exterior glass walls are supposed to keep the environments inside and out fairly separate (even though air is allowed through). However, in the desert biome I saw a bird that was not born in the biosphere that snuck in through the vent and was probably going to sneak out again. That was my favorite moment, watching a bird flying through this semi-closed ecosystem … kind of emblematic with what I’m trying to do with my Flight in a Cage novel.
They have tours fairly regularly. It is one of Tucson’s main attractions. But not everyone that goes there is actually a tourist. Most of the folks on the tour I was on were high school students who had volunteered to scuba dive in the Biosphere 2 ocean and clean off the algae. The ocean is sadly diminished. Originally stocked with 40ish species of fish and is now down to 2. They are planning to restore it and revitalize it in a new form to make it a working model of the Sea of Cortez.
I felt a little disillusioned walking into the basement "technosphere." It made it seem like it wasn’t really life supporting life because it needed all this equipment to heat, cool, and circulate air and water. Then again, a large reason for that equipment was to simulate specific environments for scientific purposes. Maybe in a version of this that wasn’t geared specifically for research, they could allow the natural systems to come to a more natural equilibrium. In a larger version of the biosphere there might be a more natural version of the water cycle. What they have now is sprinklers attached to the underside of the spaceframe (the support structure for the windows, one of Buckminster Fuller’s lesser known inventions, with lots of triangles but not dome-shaped).
Another thing that struck me was that they were working hard to avoid talking about the negative aspects of the project that people tend to focus on. They avoided talking about the difficulties with the human enclosure part of the project, specifically the social stresses and some of the ecological stresses.
One of the most startling things at Biosphere 2 was walking into what I think used to be the control center and finding an exhibit of space art, as well as a prototype lunar greenhouse module that I had read about online. That was really cool.
Click here for more photos from my visit.