Dr. Adele "Z.Z." Zorn

Biosphere 2 - From Failure to Success


I recently had an opportunity to visit the world famous Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona-- 20 minutes north of Tucson, Arizona.


Built in the late 1980s with $150 million in funding from Texas oil magnate Edward Bass, Biosphere 2 was designed as an airtight self-sufficient replica of Earth's environment (Biosphere 1) and had been designed for a hundred year study of complex ecological systems interactions.  It took 15 years of planning and 4 years of construction to complete the project.

Some of the early designers and managers were interested in space travel and the possibility of colonizing the Moon or Mars. By building Biosphere 2 and sealing people inside, they hoped to learn what problems would arise from living in a closed system.  The people who were selected to be Biospherians and live inside Biosphere 2 came from 7 different countries.  All spent several years in training to become more proficient in their own fields as well as gaining expertise in the skills of the others. The first crew of Biospherians (4 women and 4 men) entered Biosphere 2 on September 26, 1991.

They remained inside for two years despite various problems.  The major cause of the Biosphere2 failure was the surprising finding that trees need exercise. Apparently, because there was no wind within the Biosphere, the trees became very flabby and weak, and tended to flop about and break.  This caused carbon dioxide levels to rise and oxygen to decrease.  This also caused limited agricultural productivity which lead to decreased food, resulting in making the Biospherians hungry and weak.

When they realized they couldn’t control the environment that would make it habitable for people and plants to live in, the Biospherians left Biosphere 2 on September 26, 1993. After a 6-month transition period, a second crew of 7 biospherians (5 men and 2 women) entered Biosphere 2. Unfortunately, after a number of physical and social problems developed, the project soon suffered scientific disdain and public ridicule before these experiments were suspended in 1994. Since then, there have been no resident crews living inside Biosphere 2, and no future human habitation is planned.

Although it was considered a failure and a laughing stock, since it has been taken over by the University of Arizona in July 2007, the Biosphere 2 Center has become a major tourist attraction in the Tucson area. 

Our under-the-glass tour started from the cliff above.  We walked 200 steps up and down throughout the tour. To enter the interior we went through an airlock door into the wilderness areas of Biosphere 2 to experience firsthand the environment of this amazing engineering marvel.

Biosphere 2 is a 7,200,000-cubic-foot sealed glass and space-frame structure on 3.14 acres and 91 feet at its highest point.

There are 6,500 windows. It is sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner. and contains 5 biomes, (natural balance ecosystem) including a one million gallon saltwater ocean that we observed both above and below as we descended into the underwater gallery.  There we were able to see the corals and fish in this living ocean laboratory.  The other biomes consist of a rain forest, a desert, agricultural areas and a human habitat that was the former living quarters for those who were sealed inside. 


We walked through the upper and lower Savannahs, Thorn scrub, Rain forest, Desert and Technosphere finishing inside the amazing South Lung complex. There are two Lungs that that from the exterior of the Biosphere are seen as two white, dome-like structures. These lungs inside the Biosphere equalize pressure as they pull air in and out on the domes that go up and down. We were able to see how this works.

As we left the South Lung to leave the sealed interior of Biosphere 2, an amazing force of air enveloped us. 

Biosphere 2  is the only sealable building on Earth. When in Arizona, make sure to put Biosphere2 on your must see list.

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