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Sightseeing

Under the Dome

Twenty years ago this month, the first crew emerged after two years in Biosphere 2, north of Tucson. Today it's a university research facility — and a tourist attraction.

David A. Fryxell

 

 

Twenty minutes north of Tucson on Hwy. 77, the suburbs and shopping malls trickle away into scattered ranches and remote ranch houses, gas stations and bar-and-grills. The backsides of the Catalina Mountains knife into the sunshine above a rolling green and brown desert scrubland. Just before you reach the oasis of civilization that is the town of Oracle, a sign and an even narrower road beckon you to the right, through stunted hills and huddled blobs of greenery. Everything you've been driving through is "Biosphere 1" — the teeming planet Earth. You are about to enter "Biosphere 2."

biosphere
Biosphere 2, north of Tucson (Photos by Lisa D. Fryxell)

While Biosphere 1 currently holds some 7 billion people, at its peak population Biosphere 2 was home to only eight. Much like the fictional characters of this summer's TV hit "Under the Dome," they lived inside a closed ecosystem, under several white-roofed domes and a soaring glass pyramid. When the eight original "biospherians" emerged blinking into the Arizona sunshine after exactly two years — 20 years ago this month, on Sept. 26, 1993 — however, their experience was rated as anything but a hit. What had originally been hailed by Discover magazine as "the most exciting venture to be undertaken in the US since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon" would come to be viewed by Time as one of the "100 Worst Ideas of the Twentieth Century."

Today, after an interim management by Columbia University that sought to distance itself from the original Biosphere 2 experiment, the facility is run by the University of Arizona. You can tour the 3.45-acre campus and marvel at the facility that includes one of the world's largest greenhouses: 91 feet at its highest point; 7.2 million cubic feet of sealed glass; 6,500 windows; all sealed from not only from above but also from the earth below, by a 500-ton welded stainless-steel liner; inside, 4,000 species and 20 tons of biomass. The guided tour includes a short film about the facility and the original experiment, though this introduction leaves out much of the colorful background that led to the $150 million project. For that you'll need to pick up a book in the gift shop, Dreaming the Biosphere, by Rebecca Reider.

Though less shy about Biosphere 2's eclectic saga than under Columbia's stewardship, the University of Arizona also touts its current experiments at the site on water use, solar energy and climate change. "This engineering marvel," says a brochure, "was created to better understand how natural environments create habitable conditions for human sustainability. It is a unique facility that can be used to understand the role of life on Earth and the effects of climate change."

In fact, however, the original impetus for creating Biosphere 2 wasn't improving life on Earth at all. It was to prepare for life off Earth — for example, on Mars.

 

The term "biosphere" was coined by Australian geologist Edward Suess in 1875 and elaborated upon by Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russian geochemist, in an obscure 1926 monograph. It refers to "the totality of living beings, together with the air, minerals and water that they controlled through biogeochemical cycles," according to Reider. "Biosphere" didn't enjoy much currency until the 1982 Institute for Ecotechnics Galactic Conference in southern France, where experimental architect Phil Hawes unveiled a model of a "biosphere" designed for life in space. Such starry ideas were hardly unusual at the conference: "Here people talk casually about retiring on Mars," one reporter wrote. "Here people talk about Mars as if it were France."

Hawes and another attendee, John Allen, had been part of a group in northern New Mexico in the 1970s called Synergia Ranch that Allen refused to call a "commune." Members also toured the country in a secondhand yellow school bus as a performance troupe called the "Caravan of Dreams" and later the "Theater of All Possibilities." Happily for what would become Biosphere 2, one of their supporters was Texas philanthropist and multi-millionaire investment mogul Ed Bass.

The group began to turn from theater to science after the Ecotechnics conference, founding Space Biosphere Ventures (SBV) in the early 1980s. Not long after, in the autumn of 1984, Allen, Bass and other Synergia alumni drove out into the desert north of Tucson to inspect 1,800 acres of former ranchland. "We're going into the space race," Allen told the group.

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The rain-forest biome

He had selected southern Arizona as the ideal location for a glassed-in biosphere because of the year-round sunlight. The site he had in mind had once been part of the CDO Ranch and now contained a small cluster of buildings used as a conference center, first by Motorola and then the University of Arizona.

A little over two years later, with funding from Bass' bottomless checkbook, SBV broke ground for what a swooning news media would call a "planet in a bottle" and a "greenhouse ark." The Tucson Citizen hailed the event as "nothing short of the first step to creating permanent life on another planet — if not the discovery of a New World, at least the making of one."

That was exactly what Allen and co-author Mark Nelson had in mind in their 1986 book, Space Biospheres. Warning of environmental catastrophe or nuclear armageddon, they argued that Biosphere 1 — that is, Earth — "must disappear... unless it can participate in sending forth offspring biospheres... to evolve off planet Earth."

 

Today, the shimmering glass pyramid and domes of Biosphere 2 appear like a mirage as you drive through the familiar landscape of Biosphere 1, park in a tree-studded lot and enter the standard-issue visitors' lobby. You pay an entrance fee, then exit outside and make your way past a little café and a covey of casitas built during the Columbia University era. Signs lead you down to the airlock where, on Sept. 26, 1991, the eight biospherians began their scientific adventure. Yours will take less than two hours; theirs lasted two years.

Entering the airlock is anticlimactic if you expected something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's a whooshing and then you're in. A few exhibits explain the current university research at the facility; you can peruse them while waiting for the next showing of the welcome film.

After the film, a jovial tour guide leads you to the first of Biosphere 2's five "biomes," meant to reproduce ecosystems from across the planet. The route passes by the farm area that fed — not very well, as it turned out — the eight biosphereans, now another university experimental area.

Then, with a sharp spike in humidity, you enter the rain forest. Initially, the 20,000-square-foot area feels as though you've stepped from Arizona straight into the Amazon jungle. Trees soar more than 90 feet overhead into the heights of the glass-pyramid part of Biosphere 2. Bugs imported from South America creep and fly and crawl. But no birds sing or flit about and no lizards scuttle underfoot; it's hard enough keeping the smallest life forms from escaping to the neighboring "desert" or "marsh."

Next comes the ocean, though you'll get a better view — from down below, in an underwater, aquarium-like viewing room — if you take the optional self-guided tour at the end. A wet rectangle with a small white rowboat improbably docked at one side, the coral-reef biome was filled with 100,000 gallons of actual sea water imported, coral critters and all, from the Pacific off San Diego. Another 650,000 gallons were added from local wells, salinized by mixing in a commercial sea salt called "Instant Ocean."

Today the ocean is being used as a testing bed for solutions to the "Pacific garbage patch" — a Texas-size agglomeration of plastic trash that's floating out here in Biosphere 1. Researchers are introducing different types of plastic to test what micro-organisms consume the plastic and what toxins are produced in the process.

 

Building the ocean was typical of the snags and delays that inevitably afflicted a project of this complexity. A convoy of milk trucks was hired to haul the ocean water from San Diego harbor, but the trucks turned out to still contain milk residue that contaminated the seawater. Everything was dumped in the desert and the scrubbed-out trucks sent back to the Pacific to try again. The rain forest was planted before the biome could be sealed, so local insects invaded and Arizona deer gamboled in to munch on the exotic plantings. The mangroves for Biosphere 2's marsh had to be harvested before Florida's hurricane season hit, but their area of the project wasn't ready; a special greenhouse had to be built to contain them, only to be torn down once the marsh was prepared.

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The indoor 750,000-gallon ocean and coral reef.

Populating Biosphere 2 with humans proved no less tricky. A pool of 14 applicants, among them many with ties to Synergia Ranch, was whittled to eight — four men and four women, ages from 20s to 67, representing a doctor and his assistant, two engineers and four science students. Two were a couple before entering the airlock, while another man and woman paired up soon after. Most were vegetarians.

One biospherian, asked years later by Reider about the selection criteria, replied, "By what they could contribute. And how much they could be controlled." John Allen would not be among those locked inside what was largely his creation, but he would be there very much in spirit.

Even before the airlock was sealed, problems arose in feeding the eight inhabitants: Two biospherians presented a report showing the closed ecosystem could not possibly produce adequate food. Allen promptly dropped them from the crew, although one had to be reinstated when no one could be found to take her place in time.

The rush to occupy Biosphere 2 also meant that the first mission began as the days started to get shorter and sunlight levels lower — compounded by an unusually cloudy El Niño weather pattern. That meant plants produced less food and converted less carbon dioxide into oxygen. On the other hand, the microbes in the soil feasted on an unusually nutrient-rich mix — meant to sustain Biosphere 2 for a hundred years — and competed with the humans for oxygen as they thrived.

 

 

 

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