Biosphere 2: The Failure Of a Unique Experiment

The Biosphere 2 Experiment

What if humans were capable of creating, not in seven days but in a few years, a space grouping together the wonders of the Earth in a determined space?

Biosphere 2 is an experimental site that could be described as a giant greenhouse, created on a hermetic floor by concrete and stainless steel plates. It was built at Oracle in the Arizona desert. This huge project was undertaken by the Space Biosphere Adventura company, created by John Allen and Magret Augustine for about 200 million dollars, provided by a Texan billionaire. The experiment, named Biosphere II because Biosphere I is the Earth, aims to demonstrate the feasibility of space colonization by recreating the Earth’s ecological systems inside of an artificial habitat. More simply, the designers wanted to find out if we could go and live on another planet by taking a biosphere to live inside it and rebuild the Earth we live on there.

What is a Biosphere? It is essentially a sphere of life around the Earth, in this case totally closed and energetically open.

The crazy project extending over an area of 1.2 hectares with all the facilities, is totally isolated from the outside environment. It houses a tropical forest, water helmets, an artificial ocean, forest, savannah, mangrove, land reserved for agriculture, a human habitat with its private quarters and workplaces, as well as a basement floor for the technical installations. Hot and cold water circulated through a network of independent pipes in a complex system. In an interview, one of the designers said “it takes all of this to recreate that which Earth is doing everyday for us“. This project, even if it failed, particularly with regard to the recycling of air, had the merit of showing how difficult it is to control an ecosystem.

The missions:

Two missions were carried out in this building. The first lasted two years and the second 6 months. During the first mission in 1991, plants, animals and eight men and women were sent to live in the dome to be self-sufficient. Even though food was provided by crops with potato and banana plantations, the bionauts soon realized that the oxygen level was decreasing by 0.5% per month without being able to regain any stability. The level had become so low, 14.2% instead of 21%, due to low outside light preventing sufficient photosynthesis and microbes introduced into the agricultural sections, that some humans became ill. Oxygen had to be imported from outside the greenhouse, which contributed to the loss of credibility of the experiment. “After thirteen months we were starving, suffocating and thought we were all going crazy“, reports one of the bionauts, Jayne Poynte. The other reason leading to this loss of legitimacy is less scientific. The mission has been categorised as a cult acting under the guise of science in an “almost totalitarian, hippy tachism atmosphere” – Harvard researcher Wade Davies. Indeed, it seems that Allen has too much power over the participants in the experiment, and his attitude is seen as a “sectarian aberration“.

The second mission in 1994, which was supposed to last ten months, was cut short by vandalism committed by two members of the crew in reaction to the billionaire’s decision to release Allen from his obligations. The creative company was dissolved the same year.

Nowadays

Biosphere II then welcomed students and tourists and was finally sold to a property management company. However, the University of Arizona announced in 2007 that it would lease the facility to conduct experiments. This prototype is now used for environmental research and to anticipate the response of ecosystems to climate change. It allows environmental responses to be explored on land in a controlled and recreated system. The University of Arizona is also using it to understand the feedbacks between climate change, the carbon cycle and the water cycle, as well as the responses of habitats to these changes. More, some researchers are conducting studies exploring the complex effects of atmospheric CO2 variations on the functioning of ocean ecosystems.