Biosphere 2: Better than Fiction

biosphere2I have vague memories of learning about Biosphere 2–the huge, hermetically sealed bubble built in the middle of the Arizona desert–in school. I think there was some Scholastic-type newsletter about it, with a photo of all the Biospherians in their jumpsuits, and a rundown of all the ecosystems present in the big globe. Remember how much time kids in the 80s-early 90s spent learning about the rainforest? I’m pretty sure we must have learned about Biosphere 2 during the media blitz that accompanied the Biospherians’ entrance into their new home. And I’m sure what we read was totally optimistic, as coverage of current science for elementary school students usually is. But what happened after their big entrance? Were they really able to live totally sustainably for years in their big glass bubble? I had no idea.

Last week, when I came across a retro report on Biosphere 2 in the New York Times, it was like getting a forgotten part of my childhood back!  (For anybody who hasn’t seen it yet, the retro report series is awesome. And one of my favorite reporters, Michael Winerip, wrote this one up.) The retro report movie and the accompanying article were long on interest but short on detail.  Rumors of cults? Starvation? Oxygen shortages? A division among the Biospherians that erupted into physical violence? I wanted to know more! So I did some digging, and here is what I found.

The origins of Biosphere 2. Apparently the idea for Biosphere 2 was hatched on the Synergia Ranch, in New Mexico. The ranch was founded in 1969 by a guy named John Allen; it was an ecovillage/commune that counted some future Biospherians as members. The commune members, or Synergists, practiced organic farming, ate silently at mealtimes as they contemplated their food, and were part of an improv troupe called the Theater of All Possibilities. One Synergist, Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass, provided the funding for Biosphere 2 (~200 million from 1985–2007). Some people were discomfited when they learned about Mr. Allen’s vision, in which biospheres like this one would serve as refuges in an apocalyptic world laid to waste by nuclear war or some other disaster. So the PR people tended to focus on the neato science aspects of it. Ecology, rainforests and coral reefs, sustainability, etc. Originally, the biosphere was conceived of as a grand 100-year experiment. But it didn’t proceed exactly as planned.

Mission 1. The adventure began in September of 1991, when the 8 Biospherians (4 men and 4 women) sealed themselves in the bubble. The sphere, which covered an area the size of two and a half football fields, included a number of different ecosystems: a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, an agricultural area, a human habitat, and a below-ground area that housed infrastructure. In all, 3,800 species of animals and plants were sealed inside, including hummingbirds, monkeys (!), and earthworms. Prior to the spherians’ entrance, two Native Americans in full dress and a Tibetan Buddhist monk participated in a sunrise prayer for their success.

The primary goal was to figure out whether the Biospherians could live totally sustainably for 2 years–with no food, air, or other supplies from the outside. Although the Biospherians were often called scientists in the media, only one, Roy Walford, was actually trained as a scientist. Walford was the crew’s physician, and his research interests focused on aging and diet. Apparently, inside the sphere, the residents soon broke into two factions: one group supported director John Allen and one questioned his methods. The anti group felt that the spherians should be formulating research hypotheses that would then be evaluated by the Science Advisory Committee. The pro-Allen faction, was against this idea. Apparently, despite the magnitude of this scientific endeavor, no regular scientific records were kept during the Mission! In February 1993, the 10-member scientific advisory team resigned. One of the remaining sources of scientific advice for the project was the mysterious Institute of Echotechnics. There were rumors that critics in the world of science were silenced by threats of lawsuits. However, a group of respected scientists wrote up a report on the project at the request of Ed Bass. Among other things, the report criticized the lack of a well-developed scientific plan, the project’s excessive secrecy, and possible “embellishments” of data. Walford later said, “Management thinks it knows more science than it does, but they don’t understand that in doing science you have to be asking a particular question, not just collecting a lot of random data. They have been [called] environmental zealots, and I think that’s true.”

930926_B2CrewAfterReentry_HM_UAThere were also allegations that the anti-Allen faction was punished with extra work and the withdrawal of privileges. Fights turned nasty–there was even spitting involved. It’s natural for a small group of people in trying circumstances to become short-tempered. But critics have pointed out that the way in which the spherians were chosen and prepared probably contributed to the level of dysfunction. Astronauts, for example, are carefully chosen for space missions. They must have stable psychological profiles, be very physically fit, and have extensive training in their fields. The Biospherians, by contrast, selected themselves. They were enthusiastic environmentalists and most of them were good friends, but they were not trained scientists (with the exception of Walford), they didn’t have any special training for their roles in the biosphere, they made decisions by consensus as questions came up rather than following a pre-established plan, and there was no real external scientific oversight. In other words, chaos may have been inevitable.

Fighting wasn’t the only thing that made life inside the sphere unpleasant. Oxygen levels dropped and carbon dioxide levels soared, making it very difficult to breathe. Later, researchers figured out that the concrete in the structure was absorbing oxygen, and the high organic matter in the soil also appears to have contributed to the oxygen/carbon dioxide problems. It got so bad that oxygen from outside had to be pumped in, and eventually a carbon dioxide scrubber was installed, which critics said voided the project’s raison d’etre (remember: nothing in or out, including air). In the end, all of the vertebrates except for the Biospherians and the pollinating insects died as a result of the wildly fluctuating carbon dioxide levels. Plus, the spherians had the bad luck of entering during an unusually cloudy time, which impaired the photosynthesis of the plants. Because the crops did not grow well, the Biospherians had very little to eat, and they lost weight — a lot of it. They had to resort to eating emergency food supplies, including seeds that were meant for planting. The coral reef dissolved into sludge. Cockroaches flourished, until they were eaten by an army of ants that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Although in the beginning there were domesticated animals, there wasn’t enough food to support them. The residents had to kill them. And one detail that especially interested the public and may have been difficult for the Biospherians to get used to: there was no toilet paper.

After the mission, a number of glaring mistakes were identified. When populating the various ecosystems with plants, species from all over the world were chosen and clumped together. Rather than resembling a natural ecosystem, in which different species have evolved to occupy different niches, brand new combinations of species were inadvertently being tried out. It did not work well, and  a few very successful species tended to crowd out the rest. The soil chosen was way too rich in organic matter, which contributed to the oxygen/carbon dioxide problems. And crops (like peanuts and soybeans) that depend on species-specific soil bacteria called rhizobia to grow didn’t get what they needed. These were all problems that agricultural specialists could have identified quickly. In fact, experts at the University of Arizona pointed out the problems with the rich organic soil, but they were ignored.

Eventually, the crew threw in the towel. The mission ended exactly two years after it started, in 1993. It’s pretty amazing they toughed it out for so long! I would have been banging on the air lock after a week.

Mission 2. The second mission lasted from March 1994–September 1994 and included 7 Biospherians. This time, having learned from the problems encountered during Mission 1, it was decided that spherians would rotate in and out in 180 day shifts and scientists and other personnel would be allowed to visit. By April of that year, some of the top managers of the project (including John Allen and Margaret Augustine) were replaced. Apparently Biosphere 2, which was originally conceived as a money-making venture, was requiring big infusions of cash and funder Ed Bass had had enough. A few days after Allen and Augustine were dismissed, two of the original Biospherians broke into the sphere, breaching the airlocks and deflating the system’s air pressurizer. They said their goal was to warn their comrades inside about the change in management. In the aftermath, a number of people connected to the Biosphere project accused John Allen of running a cult, including former Biosphere official Stephen Storm and the mother of Biospherian Abigail Alling. Among other things, they accused Allen of brainwashing and even physically abusing the Synergists who lived on his ranch.

Post-Biosphere Events. Eventually Ed Bass washed his hands of Biosphere 2.

First, Columbia University bought the facilities in 1995 and used them to conduct experiments. A lot of their work focused on manipulating carbon dioxide levels to simulate global warming.

Then, in 2oo7, the University of Arizona took over research at the sphere. It’s in their hands now. If you want to learn more about current research, you can visit their website. It seems like they are leveraging the unique blend of ecosystems to do some interesting ecology experiments.

I did a literature search to try and figure out what kind of scientific legacy this project left behind. It’s biggest contribution seems to have surrounded the hunger the biospherians were subjected to–a lot of great studies on calorie restriction came out of the work. As miserable as it must have been to be constantly hungry, the low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet that they ate contributed to pretty excellent health among the Biospherians. Their cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels all fell. Perhaps Biosphere 2 should be rebranded as a health spa!

The early years of Biosphere 2 were a sort of fascinating debacle, but there may be many decades of research that lie ahead. Maybe it will end up lasting 100 years.

Want to go visit the Biosphere after reading all of this? You’re in luck. They give tours! And apparently they are pretty good–Trip Advisor reviewers gave them 4 out of 5 stars. Next time I’m in Arizona…