ORACLE, Arizona – Decades ago, the thought of a group of humans sealed inside a life cycles experiment was mere science fiction – until a group of visionaries made it happen on a virgin, 40-acre slice of the Sonoran Desert north of Tucson.
For all its initial warts, Biosphere 2 showed that we can indeed create a viable closed-loop system that can sustain and support human life. Was the outcome perfect? Well, not completely. But the experiment itself was very much a success.
“What captured headlines then was that this was a futuristic colony that we might put on the moon or Mars,” said John Adams, Biosphere 2 deputy director.
The ultimate construction of such an intricate structure on another chunk of rock somewhere in the solar system remains generations away, he said.
Yet Biosphere 2 has continued to be a valuable research entity since the original eight inhabitants left its environs in the early 1990s.
As a matter of fact, the work being done here is vital as climate change forces people to reexamine the way the way we all live.
This work, however, is not being done in a vacuum. Biosphere 2 is now an attraction open to the public.
In 2019, some 110,000 visitors made the trek through the saguaro forest along the Catalina Highway to see the geodesic dome on steroids. And the trend was up before the pandemic hit, Adams said.
“I think there is something here for everyone,” he said. “There is something for those who are interested in science or the botanicals, and engineering systems are fascinating.
Indeed, history buffs will enjoy seeing the living quarters of its original inhabitants. Naturists will revel in the rain forest and desert scape, and the artificial ocean is a briny wonder that just might help scientists someday understand how to help the world’s dwindling coral reefs.
“Layered on top of that, it is an incredible educational tool,” Adams said. “It is a local attraction and people are drawn to it because of what initially took place in history. But people are pleasantly surprised to hear about the research that benefits us all. Our foundation is in the research and everything builds off that.”
The structure itself, built from 60,000 massive metal struts, has remained the same, but the interior has undergone a transformation. What was originally the farmland used to grow produce to sustain the original inhabitants has been turned into three glorified Petri dishes almost 100-feet long, 36-feet wide with an average slope of 10-degrees. Each is filled to a uniform depth of three feet with about 500 metric tons of crushed basalt rock.
This gives scientists the ability to examine landscapes’ evolution from base mineral to living landscapes and ultimately vascular plant communities. Some 1,800 sensors and sampling devices on, within, or above each landscape monitor water, carbon, and energy cycling processes and the landscapes’ evolution.
This will better help scientists predict the affects of climate change and provide possible scenarios under various conditions, Adams said.
The rain forest, complete with enough humidity for every pore to secrete perspiration, is a biological wonder with the harmony in which the many complex organisms have adapted to life in the bubble. But with world drought conditions worsening, a recent study of a simulated drought in which water was withheld for more than two months, is undergoing scrutiny by the scientific community.
In this way, Biosphere 2’s spatial scale is a bridge between small-scale, controlled, laboratory-based understandings of earth processes and field experiments where controlling all environmental conditions are essentially impossible. That size allows for controlled experimentation on an unprecedented scale to deliver the missing link between the laboratory and the real world.
And unlike most scientific research that is conducted well away from the prying eyes of the public, visitors are encouraged to view this work as it unfolds in front of us.