Recently named by Time Life Books, as “one of the 50 must see ‘Wonders of the World’”, Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona is an interesting study in agriculture and architecture. Built between 1987 and 1991 and named after Biosphere 1 ( Earth is known as Biosphere 1 and is the only currently known biosphere), Biosphere 2 was developed to explore the relationships between, and within, life systems wholly contained within an artificial, closed-off ecological system. The idea was that study could be undertaken on the earth’s biosphere without harming it.
Biosphere 2 is the largest enclosed indoor ecosystem ever created, equal to about two and a half football fields (250 yards) that sits on 40 acres at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, 4,000 feet above sea level. The biomes (synthetic ecosystems designed to mimic climatic and geographic communities of plant, animals, and soil organisms) within Biosphere 2 include:
• 6,233 feet of rainforest
• a 2,788 foot ocean (complete with a coral reef)
• 1,476 feet of mangrove wetlands
• a 4,265 foot savannah grassland
• 4,593 feet of fog desert
• an 8,202 foot agricultural system
• human living areas
• an underground infrastructure
The enclosure is heated and cooled using water that circulates through piping systems, passive solar glass space frames (lightweight rigid structures made from interlocking struts (or trusses) in geometric patterns) panels and electric power supplied through an onsite natural gas energy center.
Steel tubing and high-performance glass and steel frames are used to construct the aboveground portion of Biosphere 2. The window seals and structures were made to be almost perfectly airtight, so that the air exchange would not interfere with the experiments being conducted inside. Especially notable was how the structure dealt with atmospheric expansion. Heat from the sun during the day causes air to expand and at night it cools and contracts. To deal with these constant expansions and contractions, special diaphragms called lungs were kept in domes. To keep the structure cool, large air conditioners were required.
Some interesting facts about the Biosphere 2 building: it is 91 feet at its highest point; there are 6,500 windows and 7,200,000 cubic feet of sealed glass; it is sealed from below the earth by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner. This “Technosphere” as it is known, is nearly 3.14 acres large and it houses all the mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems needed to run the facility. The mission of Biosphere 2 today is, “To serve as a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe.” There are two divisions within Biosphere 2, B2 Earthscience, and B2 Institute.
After the facility was completed in 1991, eight people, including a medical doctor, entered the facility on September 26 and began a two-year closed “mission” to attempt to see if the Biosphere was capable of sustaining human life. Animal and agricultural husbandry was used to produce the food needed by the eight-member team. Eighty-three percent of the total diet consumed by the inhabitants during the first year included bananas, wheat, sweet potatoes, peanuts, rice, papayas, and beets. During the second year, the team was able to produce over a ton more food than they had produced during the first year!
The first mission ended exactly two years to the date it started. The second and final mission started on March 6, 1994 and was supposed to last ten months. A team of seven individuals entered but on April 5, 1994, members from the first team, after a dispute with the management team, intentionally vandalized the Biosphere project by opening a door and violating the closure. Soon after, two members of the second team left the enclosure and were replaced by two others. However, in June 1994, the ownership and management company dissolved and the mission ended on September 6, 1994.
In December 1995, Columbia University (New York City) took over the management of the site from its owners (Decisions Investments Corporation) and ran Biosphere 2 as a research site and campus for eight years, after which management reverted to the owners. In 2005, the 1,600-acre campus was put up for sale. In June 2007, DDO Ranching & Development, L.P. bought the property for $50 million and on June 26, management of the site was given to the University of Arizona for the study of climate change and other scientific studies. On July 1, 2011, CDO Ranching &Development officially donated the land and buildings to the University and the Philecology Foundation pledged $20 million for continuing scientific studies and operations.
Biosphere 2 is open daily to the public (with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas days) and is located north of Tucson, Arizona at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. To learn more, visit Biosphere 2 on the web.