1. The Biosphere 2 Project – A Laboratory for Global Ecology

Oracle, AZ—On March 6, 1994, seven researchers—five men and two women—were sealed inside the closed ecological system and research facility in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills north of Tucson.

The crew works under a new scheduling policy that allows scientists and other visitors to enter for short stays to conduct research while the six members of the resident operational crew has staggered stays in the structure for at least 180 days.

Biosphere 2 is an unprecedented, on-going ecological experiment, built as a laboratory for global ecology. It is a tightly sealed glass and steel structure on 3.15 acres near Oracle, Arizona in which scientists have created seven complete ecosystems or biomes that mirror those of Earth. The systems include an ocean, a desert, a savannah, a rainforest, a marsh, an area of intensive agriculture, and a human habitat. The project is designed to last a century, providing valuable data for research and education to help scientists better understand how our world works.

On September 26, 1991, eight researchers, known as “biospherians,” sealed the airlock on this massive enclosed ecological system—and Biosphere 2 began. Following their two-year stay, the men and women emerged from their mini-world on September 26, 1993. A transition period of approximately five months included intensive data collection, plant and animal inventories, new research projects and mechanical modifications to systems within Biosphere 2. The current mission is one of a series of missions to take place throughout the projected 100 years of the experiment.

Space Biospheres Ventures Space Biospheres Ventures (SBV) is a private ecological research firm formed to pioneer research in the field of biospherics, the study and construction of closed, self-regulating, self-sustaining, ecological systems. SBV was founded in 1984 by Edward P. Bass, Margret Augustine, John Allen, and Mark Nelson.

SBV designed, built and operates Biosphere 2, the world’s largest and most complex closed ecological research facility. The project was organized as a private, venture capital endeavor to promote research and develop inventions and techniques with a wide range of applications from environmental engineering and clean-up to agriculture and life-support systems.

The Biosphere 2 Project. The project is designed for three purposes: research, education, and the development of environmental technologies for use on Earth and in outer space. Biosphere 2 is a new type of laboratory which combines state-of-the-art architecture and mechanical and computer monitoring systems with a wide range of living ecosystems. It is an experimental project where everything that happens—both expected and unexpected—provides valuable insights into our complex and evolving world.

While the biospherians further the research of more than 60 projects, 42 Ph.D.- level scientists are formally analyzing the information gathered inside Biosphere 2, as they study such topics as carbon dioxide and oxygen cycles, soil composition, coral reef health and vitality, agricultural pest management, waste and water recycling, and more. Every two weeks, the biospherians send the samples they have collected through the airlock to scientific consultants and analytic laboratories for study.

Publication in peer-reviewed journals of findings from Biosphere 2 research include: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (December, 1992) – a human nutrition study by physician Dr. Roy Walford; Bioscience (April, 1993) – “Using a Closed Ecological System Earth’s Biosphere” by Mark Nelson, Tony Burgess, Abigail Alling and others. Other papers include Biosphere 2 Agriculture: Test bed for intensive, sustainable, non-polluting farming systems by Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone and Jane Poynter, and Maintenance and Operational Support Characteristics of Biosphere 2 by William F. Dempster and Mark Van Thillo. Numerous other scientific papers are in review or being prepared for submission.

Biosphere 2 received the top Special Award in the 1992 Gold Nugget Awards competition sponsored by the Pacific Coast Builders Conference and Sun/Coast Architect/Builder Magazine. The Gold Nugget Awards are considered the most prestigious design awards in the nation.

In 1994, Biosphere 2 received a Grand Award in the Awards of Excellence competition, presented by the National Association of Home Builders National Commercial Builders Council. These awards are considered among the most prestigious in the nation by the building industry. The project was entered in tile industrial category for buildings over 50,000 square feet.

In addition to engineering excellence, the architecture of Biosphere 2 exhibits what architect Phil Hawes and designer Margret Augustine term “synergetic” architecture, with various sections exhibiting diverse cultural references from Maya pyramids to Middle Eastern wind towers to create a complete and harmonious design.

Structure. The Biosphere 2 structure covers approximately 3.15 acres (1.28 hectares), the size of three football fields; its volume is seven million cubic feet (204,000 cubic meters) and stretches up to 91 feet at its highest point (23 meters high). Its glass-and-steel superstructure is designed to be leak-free, and its substructure is lined with up to four inches of stainless steel which was welded and tested for air tightness. Its steel struts are covered with a finish that insures against corrosion from inside or outside the biosphere. All air, water and nutrient cycles are completely closed and recycled within this system.

The monitoring of climate, air, soils and water within Biosphere 2 is unprecedented. Over 1,000 sensors distributed throughout the Biosphere send information to the sophisticated monitoring and control system located on-site at Mission Control. This elaborate computer network provides a continuous display of environmental variables and the status of engineering controls—while constantly updating the permanent data base.

The different zones of Biosphere 2 include agriculture, a human habitat, an ocean, a tropical rainforest, a Savannah, a marsh, and a desert. Each biome was built with carefully selected soils, water and plant and animal life, collected from all over the world. Biosphere 2 sustains high biodiversity with several thousand species living within its glass walls.

Human Biomes. The human habitat is a six-story, white domed section of Biosphere 2 that includes apartments for resident researchers, laboratories, a computer center, communications and office space, workshops and a library. This portion of Biosphere 2 was designed to take on the ecological challenges of our cities. Domestic animals (African pygmy goats and hybrid fowl) are kept in a section of the human habitat. Next to the animal bay and immediately south of the human habitat, a series of arched spaceframe vaults houses the intensive agriculture biome. Here, food crops are grown on broad terraces in 24,000 square feet of space (.55 acre or .22 hectare).

During the transition period following the first closure, new supplemental lighting was installed in this area to help compensate for any extended cloud cover during the next 10 1/2-months. New food crops were also introduced.

The Wilderness Biomes. The tropical rainforest biome occupies the tallest (approximately 91 feet or 23 meters high) section of Biosphere 2’s spaceframe structure. A stream cascades down the mountain in the rainforest’s center, through a flood plain on the forest floor and into Biosphere 2’s tropical savannah biome (atop rock cliffs beside the ocean). From there the stream travels down to the marsh biome, both fresh and salt water, and then into the Biosphere 2 ocean biome. The ocean is 25 feet (8 meters) at its deepest and includes a Caribbean coral reef ecosystem at the northern end. Wave action, required for the coral reef ecology, is generated mechanically. At the southern end of Biosphere 2’s central section, a thornscrub forest completes the savannah biome and marks the ecotone (transition zone) between the savannah and coastal thornscrub desert biomes. During transition, all of these biomes were inventoried to determine species success and failure. Some modifications, such as planting additional food crops in the rainforest, and adding trees to the coastal desert biome occurred during this time.

The Biosphere 2 Lung. West and South of Biosphere 2 are two white geodesic dome structures, called “lungs” connected by underground tunnels to the Biosphere 2 basement. The lungs are variable volume chambers able to expand and contract with shifts in atmospheric volume/pressure. Otherwise, the warming and expansion of air during the day could blow out glass panes or break the seals on Biosphere 2. The lungs’ total volume capacity is 1.7 million cubic feet (50,000 cubic meters).

Biosphere 2 Atmosphere and Water Recycling. The air is continuous throughout Biosphere 2. Air circulates among the wilderness biomes, human habitat and lungs.

“The achievements of the biospherians go beyond the application of state-of-the-art methods of sustainable agriculture. Biosphere 2 recreates in miniature the flows and balances that occur on Earth – but it moves through these cycles on ‘fast forward.’ Carbon dioxide turnover on Earth takes about three years: in Biosphere 2 it takes about three days. On Earth it takes years or decades to see how changes in the rainforest affect the growth of sorghum or sweet potatoes in another part of the world; in Biosphere 2, the impact may be seen in a matter of weeks. In Biosphere 2, agricultural materials such as crop nutrients and animal wastes recycle through the water and air systems in days, as opposed to weeks or years on Earth. It is, in this sense, an ecological laboratory of incalculable value—the world’s largest test-tube.”

Dr. Richard Harwood, C.S. Mott Foundation Chair of Sustainable Agriculture Department of Crop & Soil Sciences at Michigan Stale University

Biosphere 2 is not large enough for weather processes to occur entirely naturally, as they do on Earth. Mechanical systems assist the heating, cooling, and air and water circulation. Water evaporation from the ocean is condensed for human drinking water and for return to the stream and rainforest. Human and animal wastes are treated in a combination microbial and intensive wetlands ecosystem. Water effluent is tested before returning to the irrigation system.

Biospherians. The biospherians are selected as resourceful individuals with research and survival skills. They are the project’s front-line researchers and operators who work on a daily basis with the Mission Control team, scientific consultants, and with Director of Research, Dr. John B. Corliss.

Each Biospherian is assigned specific responsibilities inside the biosphere, such as managing and conducting research within separate biomes, coordinating the biosphere’s technical system, as well as planting and harvesting crops. The five men and two women who are members of the crew inside Biosphere 2 hail from the United Slates, Germany, Mexico, England, Australia, and Nepal. Their diverse backgrounds range from environmental biology, horticulture, forestry, and gardening to chemical engineering, and maintenance.

John W. Druitt, 39, is General Operations Coordinator/Agricultural Systems Manager. British-born Druitt supervises all internal day-to-day operations and plans and supervises all activities in the intensive agriculture area.

Matthew G. Finn, 35, of Washington, D.C., is Biosphere 2’s Research and Development Supervisor. He oversees all research and development activities inside Biosphere 2 during this 10 and a half month experiment, and monitors all marine systems.

Pascale Maslin, 34, from Australia, is Electro-mechanical Systems Manager. She supervises operations, maintenance and repair of all mechanical systems.

Tilak Ram Mahato, 30, from Nepal, is Assistant Agriculture Systems Manager. His responsibility is to ensure crop yields high enough to sustain the six-member team.

Charlotte Godfrey, 22, a native Tucsonan, serves as Terrestrial Wilderness Systems Assistant. She is responsible for the daily care of the four wilderness areas, and records data as required by research during the experiment.

Rodrigo Fernandez del Valle, 24, of Mexico, is Animal Systems Manager/Cybernetic Systems Assistant. He operates and maintains the computer and sensor systems and manages the care and feeding of all domestic animals in Biosphere 2.

Bernd Zabel, 45, from Germany, is Associate Director of Systems Engineering. He oversees the biological wastewater treatment system and the technical systems in Biosphere 2.

Points of Interest. Significant accomplishments have marked the experiment, including:

The four men and four women of the first crew set a new record for living in a closed system by surpassing the previous record (six months) held by Russian researchers in the Bios-3 experiment.

The oceanic system inside Biosphere 2 is capable of sustaining a coral reef environment and did not suffer the catastrophic losses predicted. During the first transition period, a new skimmer system was installed to improve the quality of the ocean water.

The low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet dramatically lowers the biospherians’ cholesterol levels. The diet had been studied in animals, but this is the first long-term study in humans.

One of the most striking accomplishments for Biosphere 2 is its massive recycling systems. Since 1991, crew members have used the same water and recycled all waste products inside. Each action made by a Biospherian has an immediate effect on this mini-world, which dramatically demonstrates the importance of individual accountability for the larger closed system, Earth, in which we live.

On just one-half acre of land, the biospherians grow, harvest and process their food— while keeping the soil highly fertile and using only non-polluting pest control methods. Application on Earth of similar systems show promise for reducing ground water pollution from agricultural chemicals, production of pesticide-free foods and more efficient food production.

Biosphere 2 is a uniquely designed structure where technology is used for the benefit of ecology. The Biospherian’s manage and control all the systems from waves, tides, waterfalls and currents to rain, temperatures and humidity.

The biospherians are conducting research on how to restore natural endangered habitats, such as rainforests or coral reefs. While in this closed structure, they are gaining knowledge about the forces that either degrade or enhance an ecological system and will be able to apply this information to areas that are actually threatened on our planet.

The exchange of Biosphere 2’s air with the Earth’s air, called a “leak rate,” is approximately 10 percent a year—making Biosphere 2 the most airtight structure of its kind ever built. This extraordinarily low leak rate is far less than any other closed system experiment previously conducted. The tight seal enabled the detection of an oxygen decline which has led to significant research about oxygen cycles.

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