Twenty five years ago this month, eight men and women completed an extraordinary experiment. They had been sealed inside a giant greenhouse in the Arizona desert and had attempted to survive for two years with only sunshine and energy provided from outside the greenhouse. Biosphere 2 was no ordinary greenhouse, it was an attempt to create the kind of closed-system, capable of sustaining all of the life inside it, that we would need if we were ever to survive in outer-space. Biosphere 2 consisted of seven linked habitats: a rainforest; a mangrove swamp; an ocean including a coral reef; farm-land; human habitation; savannah and a fog desert. This was a commercial venture, and a company, Space Biosphere Ventures, was created and funded to develop the facility and run the experiment in the expectation that there would be profitable spin-offs.
The first Biosphere 2 experiment ran from the 26th September 1991 until the 26th September 1993. At the time, the travails of the eight “Biospherians” attracted interest from all around the world. Perhaps as a precursor of our reality-TV dominated times, much of the attention related to the social interactions between the people in Biosphere 2 and even extended to their relationships with some of the team outside the dome.
The biospherians had to deal with hunger, declining oxygen levels and a serious injury to one of their number that resulted in them being removed from the biosphere for a time. All of the pollinating insects and most of the vertebrates died out and a native ant species that was accidentally shut-in killed off many of the ants that were supposed to be there. At one point the team were so hungry that they ate food that they hadn’t produced (some of their seed store). On two occasions oxygen had to be injected into the biosphere because of concerns about the occupant’s health. The experiment was also dogged by persistent rumours that food was being smuggled in, including by the injured biospherian when they returned. The biospherians also had to deal with changes in their, external, management board, and press and public misconceptions about the exact purpose of the experiment.
However, the team survived for the full 2 years, their bodies adapted to their diet, and their overall health at the end of the experiment was judged to be better than when they were shut in. The biospherians worked together effectively to run the experiment despite splitting into two factions some of whom were barely on speaking terms. A lot of useful science was conducted during, and after, the experiment and many of the original design decisions proved surprisingly effective. For example, “species packing” where more than one type of plant or creature expected to perform a particular function was included in each habitat. Research after the experiment completed showed that exposed concrete throughout the building had absorbed oxygen to a degree that wasn’t being compensated for by the plants, and led to the low oxygen-levels and some of the problems that the team had managing carbon dioxide levels.
A second closed-system experiment started on 6th March 1994 with the intention of running for 10 months, with the exposed concrete covered by earth and vegetation. Less than a month after the start of the experiment, a dispute in the management company led to Steve Bannon (yes, President Trump’s former Chief Strategist) and his company taking over Space Biosphere Ventures. Members of the original management team and some of the original biospherians were concerned about the implications of this takeover to the safety of the new set of participants. Attempts to make the new inhabitants of Biosphere 2 aware of what was going on led to factions forming within the biosphere, further recriminations outside the dome including police intervention, and eventually the early termination of the experiment. Despite all this, the second group achieved something that the first group hadn’t by being completely self-sufficient for food for the duration of their stay.
A lot was learnt from the two closed-system experiments, although some of the resulting research papers have subsequently been lost. Amongst other things, Biosphere 2 demonstrated that our planet’s life support system is very complicated, and that it is impossible to uncouple human social systems and the biological systems that nurture us. One lesson that was subsequently learnt from the two experiments was that the lack of stressors (wind, fire, etc) led to less resilience in the overall system. The lack of the niche habitats that these stressors create aided the decline of biodiversity (e.g. loss of pollinators) and the takeover of generalist species like desert ants and cockroaches.
Biosphere 2 was so-named because the planet we all live in is our first biosphere. In the years following the completion of the second experiment it appeared that we were unable, or unwilling, to apply the lessons from Biosphere 2 to Biosphere 1. Like Biosphere 1, Biosphere 2 has had a challenging time since the completion of the first experiment. The company that owned and ran it collapsed in 1994 and a year later it became part of the University of Columbia who ran experiments in the facility until 2003. During this time Biosphere 2 was used for a range of valuable experiments to understand the impacts of climate change. It was then threatened with demolition to make way for shops and houses. However, it was taken over by the University of Arizona in 2011 and now has a new life as a research facility, tourist attraction and conference venue at the heart of the University’s campus. Its new mission is to serve as a centre for research, outreach, teaching and learning about Earth, its living systems, and its future.
Various writers have presented the early years of Biosphere 2 as everything from a Steve Bannon-related conspiracy theory to a fight over the scientific method itself. A comedy film, Bio-dome, has even been made loosely based on Biosphere 2. However, looking across the 25-year history of the greenhouse in the Arizona desert a remarkable amount of science across a range of disciplines has been, and continues to be, conducted. We know much more than we did 25 years ago about the connections between biological (and social) systems and about the importance of nature for humanity’s well-being and survival. This is beautifully summarised by Tony Juniper in his book “What has nature ever done for us?”
“… Is it not the case that our amazing intellect has taken us out of evolution – beyond nature?
… no, it hasn’t. The natural diversity of animals, plants and other organisms that is all around us enables the different systems that sustain life to function. More and more research confirms how life supports the conditions for life, through cycles that maintain soil fertility, climate stability or via population checks and balances, among other things. It is an integrated system, and we are in it and dependent upon it as much as the birds and flowers.
… And for many ecosystems it seems that diversity is an important characteristic in keeping them working and able to withstand shocks and to recover from them. As species are lost, so the ability of natural systems to properly function goes down.”
About the author
Originally written by Mike Coker, please connect with him here for more stories about his latest endeavours in conservation.
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