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Recycling Biosphere 2 To Study Climate Change

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Recycling Biosphere 2 To Study Climate Change

Recycling Biosphere 2 To Study Climate Change

Photo by Michel Marizco

Another building at the Biosphere Two compound in Oracle, Arizona.

Biosphere 2 started out as a grand experiment in the early 1990s. Part of its purpose was to serve as a prototype space colony – enclosing humans, plants and animals in the largest ecology lab in the world. It failed. Now the University of Arizona is taking over Biosphere Two. The new research focus? Climate change.

An enormous white steel structure stands amidst the green hills north of Tucson, Arizona. It looks like a spaceship that someone landed at the foot of the Catalina Mountains. It’s called Biosphere 2; Biosphere One, of course, being the Earth itself.

One question the original experiment tried to answer: Could eight humans survive for two years in a perfectly enclosed ecosystem that creates its own air, food, and water? The result? No. The plants flourished but so did the CO2 they produced. Insects died off, well, except the cockroaches.

As for the people inside, well, by the time it was over, eight people had spent two years and twenty minutes together. Jane Poynter was one of the original Biospherians.

“It was a struggle, for sure; it was a struggle personally, it was a struggle scientifically,” she says now. But she’s proud they had made it.

The larger experiment in Biosphere Two didn’t work, but there were some very human connections made. She’s now married to one of the Biospherians. And then there’s her connection to … sweet potatoes. Best to let her tell it.

“As I breathed out, my carbon dioxide went into the sweet potatoes. Then we harvested them and we ate those sweet potatoes so I was eating the same carbon again and we ate so many sweet potatoes that we turned orange so we were becoming part sweet potato.”

The days of locking people inside are over but the general idea remains. Now the University of Arizona science teams are using the building in a series of experiments in climate change.

Biosphere 2 is big enough to contain five different ecosystems. Each is a controlled environment, where scientists don’t need to worry about the unexpected. Like a rainstorm when you’re studying prolonged drought, for example.

Photo by Michel Marizco

Biosphere 2 Assistant Director John Adams walks through one of the steel tunnels beneath the massive structure.

John Adams is assistant director of Biosphere Two. He points out Biosphere Two’s features as we descend down a long walkway.

“The ocean, the rainforest, those are our larger experimental research programs,” he says.

We’re walking through a rainforest. Inside. It’s humid enough to be one, with giant leaves, the smell of water, there’s a saltwater basin below. Yet you can see the bare rock of the Arizona mountains outside the sphere’s glass walls.

“There’s always been talk that if you could cap a rainforest for example, you could better understand how it functions but that’s pretty unrealistic.”

Unrealistic -- but not here.  at Biosphere Two, they built the cap and grew the rainforest inside.

Pass through a heavy steel door and you’ll find Steven DeLong. He is working on the Landscape Evolutionary Observatory, the LEO.

He’s a biologist from the University of Arizona. He’ll use Biosphere Two to study the effects of environmental change on mountainslopes. The Monument Fire in Southern Arizona last June is a good example of what happens when we ignore slopes. The fire was barely extinguished when the rains came down, flooding at least one neighborhood.

"We’re going to build these very large scale artificial landscapes in this facility. Three replicate mountainslopes essentially that will have a meter of soil on them and be densely instrumented so we can understand the movement of water, energy and carbon through the systems,” he said.

The first hills will be built in the fall. They’ll add plants, shower them in rainstorms and measure the slope movements.

Biosphere Two once sought to answer bigger questions about what’s out there in space, and could we survive in it. This new generation of scientist will spend their time asking the same questions about right here on Earth.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.