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Biosphere 2: How a Sci-Fi Stunt Turned Into the World's Biggest Earth Science Lab

This thing was way better than Biodome. And now scientists are using it to solve climate change.
June 10, 2013, 6:30pm
Image: Flickr

If you were born after 1980 or so, then you probably most closely associate the concept of a manmade biosphere with Pauly Shore and fart jokes you didn't even think were funny when you were eleven. But unlike the Biodome, the Biosphere was an actual thing. And it was almost as disastrous as the movie.

In 1991, an apocalypse-fearing oil billionaire named Ed Bass poured $150 million into building the Biosphere 2, a 3-acre-wide complex of glass and steel. The completely sealed-off habitat encompassed five different biomes, and was ostensibly designed to be deployed off-planet in order to kick start otherworldly colonies.


The New York Times' new documentary about the Biosphere 2 splashes the spotlight back on the once-ambitious effort to build a self-sustaining space station in the Arizona desert. Strangely, the plan resulted both in one of the highest-profile flops in the history of science and one of its most unlikely leaps forward.

The structure was built by Peter Pearce, an erstwhile associate of the famed Buckminister Fuller, the futurist who patented the geodesic dome. That iconic design runs rampant throughout Biosphere 2, which, not coincidentally, looks like a space station from the 80s.

Researchers were supposed to live, farm, eat, and survive in the completely airtight and isolated hangar; the habitats enclosed within were supposed to recycle air and CO2 and keep the environment suitable for human life.

It was the largest "closed system" ever built, and it still is to this day. It was home to the five following habitats:

  • Ocean with coral reef
  • Mangrove wetlands
  • Tropical rainforest
  • Savannah grassland
  • Fog desert

But the eight "biospherians" who entered the biosphere—accompanying a massive media frenzy—were immediately struck with hardship. Jane Poynter, one of the most prominent members, sliced the tip of her finger off, and had to leave to get medical attention. She returned with two mysterious duffel bags that critics say were full of supplies.

Furthermore, they couldn't successfully farm enough to eat; they had to tap into imported food stores. Then it was revealed that few of the biospherians had any scientific background. And then it was realized that there were carbon scrubbers regulating the whole thing, thus negating the entire point of the experiment.

But all of that paled in comparison to the personal infighting that broke out between the researchers and dome-mates. The Independent reports:

At the end of the two years, sparks began to fly when two of the original members, Abigail Alling and Mark van Thillo, a Belgian scientist, were accused of allegedly sabotaging the glass and steel dome.
Ms Alling went into hiding leaving her mother, Gail, to claim that she had been the victim of mind control. "The people who have all been kicked out are members of a cult,'' she claimed.
Two other Biospherians, including a British scientist, Jayne Poynter, sued for back pay and a bonus of around £7,000, and Mr Bass sent in federal marshals to seize the property.

It was like a sci-fi reality show, really: the group grew bitter and divided, formed opposing factions, and still tried to collect data on living in a giant glass bubble—all under the roof of the planet's biggest Earth-bound space colony. The press frenzy around the controversial project reached an apex around then, in 1993 or so, and most people wrote the whole thing off as a boondoggle lark.

But the Biosphere 2 turned out to be more than a stoner comedy punch line.

After the failed mission, it was converted into the largest earth science lab in the world. After the hype died away, scientists turned to the remarkable structure to take advantage of the massive, climate-controllable ecosystem. Since 1996, 150 scientific papers have been published based on research carried out in Biosphere 2.

Now the University of Arizona's earth science institute directs a multimillion dollar program that takes advantage of the biosphere. They call it B2, and they explain its advantages as follows: "Biosphere 2 permits environmental variables to be tightly controlled even at a large spatial scale such as that of the different wilderness biomes represented under the glass … Thus Biosphere 2 has the potential to provide unique contributions to the understanding of how earth systems respond to environmental change."


Papers published in the last year alone span topics like the temperature sensitivity of drought induced tree mortality, the role of closed ecosystems in carbon modeling, an the efficacy of solar panels in land reclamation projects. Oh yeah, and the Biosphere 2 played a crucial role in scientists understanding the link between rising carbon levels, ocean acidification and climate change.

Image: Flickr

The Biosphere 2 has led to major, real-world scientific gains; just not in any arena its founders intended. But that's so often the story of science, even if the narrative is rarely so grandiose. We still have no idea whether eight people could live for years on end in a self-sustaining biodome—though we're pretty damn sure they can't do it in this one—but we understand global warming and ocean acidification better because we tried to find out.

In this sense, it's probably better to consider the Biosphere 2 less a science experiment than a piece of ground-breaking science fiction. The idea was an outrageous and bold—"off the charts," as Poynter put it—bid to imagine a post-earth future. Many of the parameters were highly arbitrary, and the whole thing was predicated more on a whimsical 'what if?' than a hypothesis. The Big Idea came first, albeit scattered and refracted all over the place, and the useful byproduct was like happy fallout.

It's a cycle we've seen so many times before (albeit typically in less tabloid-worthy trappings). And frankly, the drive that propels that cycle is one of the better tendencies of the human race. We gather the detritus of past future dreams—in this case, geodesic domes, art deco space ships, glass pyramids—and haphazardly reshuffle them in order to bowl on forward on the next reckless, epic pursuit.