Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 is a 3.14-acre (1.27 ha) [ [ Biosphere 2 - Where science lives ] ] structure originally built to be an artificial closed ecological system in Oracle, Arizona (USA) by Space Biosphere Ventures, a company whose principal officers were John Polk Allen and Margret Augustine. Constructed between 1987 and 1991, it was used to explore the complex web of interactions within life systems. It also explored the possible use of closed biospheres in space colonization, and allowed the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earth's. The name comes from the idea that it is modeled on the first biosphere, which is the life system on Earth. The funding for the project came primarily from Edward Bass's company, Decisions Investment, and cost $200 million from 1985 to 2007.

At a size comparable to two and a half football fields, it was the largest closed system ever created. The sealed nature of the structure allowed scientists to monitor the ever-changing chemistry of the air, water and soil contained within. The health of the human crew was continuously monitored by a medical team.

Inside was a 1900 square meter rainforest, an 850 square meter ocean with a coral reef, a 450 square meter mangrove wetlands, a 1300 square meter savannah grassland, a 1400 square meter fog desert, a 2500 square meter agricultural system, a human habitat with living quarters and office, and a below-ground level technical facility. Heating and cooling water circulated through independent piping systems, and electrical power was supplied from a natural gas energy center through airtight penetrations.

By 2006, the structure was no longer maintained in an airtight state, and the property, which is in exurban Tucson, was slated to be redeveloped for a planned community. [cite news|url=|first=Jim|last=Nintzel|publisher=Tucson Weekly|title=Bio Bust|date=2006-02-16]

As of June 5, 2007, the property including surrounding land, totaling 1650 acres (668 hectares), was sold to a residential home developer for US$50 million. A development including homes and a resort hotel was planned for a portion of the land. The Biosphere itself will remain open for tours. [ cite news|url=|title=Biosphere 2 bubble sold to developers|publisher=MSNBC|date=2007-06-05]

On June 26, 2007, the University of Arizona announced it would be taking over research at the Biosphere 2. The announcement ends immediate fears that the famous glass terrarium will be bulldozed. University officials said private gifts and grants will enable them to cover research and operating costs for three years with the possibility of extending that funding for 10 years. [cite news|url=|title=UA to take over Biosphere 2 research|date=2007-06-26|first=Anne|last=Ryman|work=The Arizona Republic]


Pilot experiments

Prior to the closure of the Biosphere, three mini-missions were carried out in the Test Module (TM), a much smaller enclosure. The objectives of these tests were quite modest — an important one was to test the waste-recycling system.

John Polk Allen spent three days in the TM, then Abigail Alling spent five days, then finally Linda Leigh set a new world record by being shut in for three weeks. These mini-missions were, of course, far too short to attempt any meaningful agriculture or animal husbandry. No data were gathered that might have been useful in estimating whether the Biosphere itself was capable of sustaining eight people for two years.

First mission

The first closed mission lasted from September 26,1991 to September 26, 1993. The crew were: medical doctor and researcher Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling (a late replacement for Silke Schneider), Mark Van Thillo and Linda Leigh.

Bananas grew very well in the structure, and formed a significant source of food. Other crops included sweet potato and peanut. But they were not able to grow enough food to satisfy the eight inhabitants with a very strenuous lifestyle, and they reported continual hunger.

There were other problems, too. During the first mission, the oxygen inside the facility, which began at 20.9%, fell at a steady pace and after 16 months was down to 14.5%. This is equivalent to the oxygen availability at an elevation of 4,080 meters (13,400 ft). [cite web |url= |title=BIOSPHERE 2: The Experiment. |accessdate=2008-01-14] The medical officer, crew member Dr. Roy Walford, closely monitored the oxygen levels in consultation with doctors on the outside from University of Arizona, and eventually requested pure oxygen to be pumped in from the outside. Two injections were added, on January 13 and August 26.

These atmospheric issues were partly caused by low light levels. The weather that year was unusually overcast, reducing photosynthesis. In addition, a side effect of the building construction meant that the structure's support beams blocked a significant amount of light.

Many suspected the drop in oxygen was due to microbes in the soil. The agricultural, savanna and rain forest sections had all been infused with microbes to encourage plant growth. In addition, the overall quantity of carbon installed in the soil at the beginning of the experiment was too high. It was now felt that these microbes were consuming too much oxygen, converting the carbon in the soil into carbon dioxide and removing the oxygen from the airFact|date=July 2008.

One problem critics of this theory have cited was that microbes breathing that much oxygen would also be creating a massive amount of carbon dioxide. So the jump in CO2 would have been greater than what was actually detected in the atmosphere readings. Further investigation revealed that the concrete at the base of the facility had been absorbing much of this carbon dioxide as it cured. This effect absorbed a large portion of the carbon dioxide being produced by the microbes which in turn had been depleting the facility's oxygen supply.

According to the general biology textbook "Biology" by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece, Biosphere 2 suffered also from CO2 levels that "fluctuated wildly" and that most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died. Ants were deliberately introduced since they are a companion to one of the tree species ("Cecropia") in the Rain Forest. However, by 1993 the tramp species "Paratrechina longicornis" which is local to the area, that had been unintentionally sealed in, had come to dominate. []

econd mission

The second closed mission began on March 6, 1994, with an announced run of ten months. Crew was Norberto Romo (Capt.), John Druitt, Matt Finn, Pascale Maslin, Charlotte Godfrey, Rodrigo Romo (no relation to Norberto) and Tilak Mahato.

On April 1, 1994 a dispute [Auditors acting for Ed Bass had been denied access to the books by Margret Augustine. Bass's people alleged gross financial mis-management of the project,leading to a loss of $25 million in fiscal 1992 --Poynter, pp325-6] within the management team led to the ousting of the on-site management by federal marshals serving a restraining order, [Poynter, pp. 324–6] leaving management of the mission to Ed Bass' company Decisions Investment.

At 3 am on April 5, 1994, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, members of the first crew, deliberately vandalized the project, opening all doors and violating the closure.

Soon after that, the captain Norberto Romo (by then married to Margret Augustine) left the Biosphere. He was replaced by Bernd Zabel, who had been nominated as captain of the first mission but replaced at the last minute. Two months later, Matt Smith replaced Matt Finn.

The ownership and management company Space Biospheres Ventures was officially dissolved on June 1, 1994.

The mission was ended prematurely on September 6, 1994.

= Columbia University = In 1995 the Biosphere 2 owners transferred management to Columbia University. [cite web
title= Paradise Lost: Biosphere Retooled as Atmospheric Nightmare
first=William J.
publisher=The New York Times
] Columbia ran Biosphere 2 as a research site until 2003, [cite web
title= Columbia University Ends Its Association With Biosphere 2
first=Karen W.
publisher=The New York Times
] at which time management reverted to the owners. During Columbia's tenure, Columbia students would often spend one semester at the site.

= Site sold = On January 10, 2005 Decisions Investments Corporation, owners of Biosphere 2, announced that the Biosphere 2 campus was for sale. They preferred a research use to be found for the complex but were not excluding buyers with different intentions, such as universities, hotels, resorts, spas, etc. In June, 2007 Associated Press announced a $50 million sale to CDO Ranching & Development, L.P. [MSNBC report, June 5 2007 [] ] . 1500 houses and a resort hotel are planned, but the main structure is still to be available for research and educational use.

Under new management

On June 26, 2007, the University of Arizona announced that it would take over management of Biosphere 2, using the site as a laboratory to study climate change, among other things. The university will pay $100 per year to the owners of the convert|1600|acre|km2|sing=on development in order to lease the 3.15 acres that contain Biosphere 2's structures. Original Biosphere financier Edward P. Bass has given the university an additional $30 million to maintain the site. [Arizona Daily Star, June 27, 2007, page 1]

= Engineering = Biosphere 2 itself is considered by many to be an achievement of engineering more than science. The above-ground physical structure of Biosphere 2 was made of steel tubing and high-performance glass and steel frames. The frame and glazing materials were designed and made to specification by a firm run by a one-time student of Buckminster Fuller, Peter Pearce (Peter Pearce & Associates). The window seals and structures had to be designed to be almost perfectly airtight, such that the air exchange would be extremely slow, to avoid damage to the experimental results.

The structure was notable for how it dealt with atmospheric expansion. During the day, the heat from the sun caused the air inside to expand and during the night it cooled and contracted. To avoid having to deal with the huge forces that maintaining a constant volume would create, the structure had large diaphragms kept in domes called "lungs".

Since opening a window was impossible, the structure also required huge air conditioners to control the temperature and avoid killing the plants within. For every unit of solar energy that entered the structure, the air conditioners would expend approximately three times to cool the habitat back down.


A special issue of the "Ecological Engineering" journal edited by B.D.V. Marino and Howard T. Odum (1999) represents the most comprehensive assemblage of collected papers and findings from Biosphere 2. The papers range from calibrated models that describe the system metabolism, hydrologic balance, and heat and humidity, to papers that describe rainforest, mangrove, ocean, and agronomic system development in this carbon dioxide-rich environment. The book "Biosphere 2: Research Past and Present" (ISBN 0080432085, 330 pp., Elsevier, 1999) by the same authors probably contains much the same information.


One view of Biosphere 2 was that it was "the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President John F. Kennedy launched us toward the moon". ["Discover", May 1987.] Others called it "New Age drivel masquerading as science". ["Ecology", 73(2), 1992, p.713] The Institute for Ecotechnics, which awarded Margaret Augustine and other Biospherians their "science credentials", was shown by a CBC documentary to be nothing more than an art gallery and café in London. ["ibid". John Allen did have mainstream credentials — a degree in Metallurgical-Mining Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.]

Further damaging the credentials of the participants, Marc Cooper wrote [Cooper, Marc. "Take This Terrarium and Shove It", "Village Voice", 1991.] that "the group that built, conceived, and directs the Biosphere project is not a group of high-tech researchers on the cutting edge of science but a clique of recycled theater performers that evolved out of an authoritarian — and decidedly non-scientific — personality cult". He was referring to the "Synergia Ranch" in New Mexico, an outpost of the Institute of Ecotechnics where indeed many of the Biospherians did practice improv theater under John Allen's leadership, and began to develop the ideas behind Biosphere 2. [Poynter, pp. 17–20]

Cooper specifically accused the project of cheating. Carbon dioxide scrubbers were secretly installed, oxygen was added, and electric power was derived from natural gas rather than solar panels.

One of their own scientific consultants came to be critical of the enterprise, too. Dr. Ghillean Prance, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, designed the rainforest biome inside the Biosphere. In a 1983 interview, Prance said, "I was attracted to the Institute of Ecotechnics because funds for research were being cut and the institute seemed to have a lot of money which it was willing to spend freely. Along with others, I was ill-used. Their interest in science is not genuine. They seem to have some sort of secret agenda, they seem to be guided by some sort of religious or philosophical system." ["Phoenix New Times", June 19, 1991.]

Psychology and conflict

Much of the evidence for isolated human groups comes from psychological studies of scientists overwintering in Antarctic research stations. [ [ Science Notes 2000 - Only the Lonely ] ] The study of this phenomenon is "confined environment psychology", and according to Jane Poynter [Poynter, op. cit.] [ [ YouTube - Biosphere 2 crewmember & author Jane Poynter interview ] ] not nearly enough of it was brought to bear on Biosphere 2.

Before the first closure mission was half over, the group had split into two factions and people who had been intimate friends had become implacable enemies, barely on speaking terms.

The faction inside the bubble came from a rift between the joint venture partners on how the science should proceed, as biospherics or as specialist ecosystem studies. Was the Biosphere a scientific experiment or a business venture? Or perhaps just an enormous art installation? There was a high-powered Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), and they, of course, felt that Biosphere 2 was about science, or else what were they there for? The faction that included Poynter felt strongly that they should be making formal proposals for research for the SAC to evaluate. The other faction included Abigail Alling, the titular director of research [ [ Biosphere 2 Organization ] ] inside the bubble, and who sided with John Allen in blocking that move. On February 14, the entire SAC resigned. [Poynter, p.270] "Time" Magazine, wrote:

Now, the veneer of credibility, already bruised by allegations of tamper-prone data, secret food caches and smuggled supplies, has cracked .... the two-year experiment in self-sufficiency is starting to look less like science and more like a $150 million stunt. [quoted at "ibid"]

Undoubtedly the lack of oxygen and the calorie restricted nutrient dense dietcite web |url= |title=Calorie Restriction in Biosphere 2: Alterations in Physiologic, Hematologic, Hormonal, and Biochemical Parameters in Humans Restricted for a 2-Year Period -- Walford et al. 57 (6): 211 -- Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences |quote=...despite the selective restriction in calories and marked weight loss, all crew members remained in excellent health and sustained a high level of physical and mental activity throughout the entire 2 years. |] contributed to low morale. The Alling faction feared that the Poynter group were prepared to go so far as to import food, if it meant making them fitter to carry out research projects. They considered that would be a project failure by definition.

The external management could certainly have done more to defuse the intolerable situation inside. Instead they provoked the Poynter faction further by putting Sally Silverstone in charge of day-to-day agricultural operations, replacing Poynter.

In November the hungry Biospherians began eating emergency food supplies that had not been grown inside the bubble. [Poynter, p. 247.] Poynter made Chris Helms, PR Director for the enterprise, aware of this. She was promptly dismissed by Margret Augustine, CEO of Space Biospheres Ventures, and told to come out of the biosphere. This order was, however, never carried out.


As with all experiments, whether considered successes or failures, the results have proved informative; in the case of Biosphere 2, the experimenters learned that small, closed ecosystems are complex and vulnerable to unplanned events. This lesson will almost certainly be applicable in the more hazardous environment of space.

In a strictly business evaluation, Biosphere 2 has to be judged a failure of management. There was never any consideration that the project could be profitable, but it had the means of defraying some of its vast expense given that 10,000 visitors a month were paying up to US$80 for the tour at one time. ["Phoenix New Times"] Ed Bass quite evidently believed that the management could be improved upon.


See also

* BIOS-3 a closed ecosystem at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in what was then the Soviet Union.
* Eden Project
* Jane Poynter, crewmember of first Biosphere 2 enclosure.
* Taber MacCallum, the Biosphere 2 team's analytical chemist.
* Roy Walford bionaut and anti-aging researcher.

Cultural references

* "Cheers" episode #251, originally broadcast November 12, 1992, features Lillith Sternan-Crane deciding to spend a year in "the ecopod," an apparent parody of the Biospherians.
* In an episode of Johnny Bravo, four scientists, including Johnny's friend Carl tried to survive for one year in the Biosphere. However, Johnny got in as well, and ruined all the resources.
* In episode 56 of the Nickelodeon series Hey Arnold!, "Bio Square", Arnold and Helga spend a weekend locked in his grandfather's greenhouse, for a school science project similar in concept to Biosphere 2. List of Hey Arnold! episodesFilm
* The film Bio-Dome (1996) is a parody of Biosphere 2, and the exterior shots are filmed on location.Music
* The song 'Old Black Dawning' by Frank Black is about Biosphere 2.
* Musician Geir Jensen named himself after the biosphere project

External links

* [ Official Website]
* [,-110.851101&spn=0.002979,0.005558&t=h&z=18 Google Maps Satellite view]
* [ Website on biospherics and Biosphere 2]
* - Patent for the expanding chambers used to equalize pressure in Biosphere 2.
* [ Biosphere 2 photos]
* [ Paragon Space Development Corporation] , formed by Biosphere 2 crewmembers while still enclosed with a team of engineer.
* [ Biosphere 2 bubble sold to developers]
* [ "Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2" by Abigail Alling, Mark Nelson and Sally Silverstone, Synergetic Press, 1993]
* [ "Biosphere 2 Astronomical Observatory"] illustrated history of its founding, operations, and closing under Columbia University rule, and disposition. With image galleries of its construction in 1999 and removal in 2008.

Notes and references

*cite book | author=Poynter, Jane | title=The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2 | publisher=Thunder's Mouth Press | year=2006 | id=ISBN 978-1-56025-775-2
* [ BIOSPHERE 2: RESEARCH PAST AND PRESENT B.D.V. Marino and Howard T. Odum (1999)]

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