The Arizona Biosphere 2 project continues the mission of exploring a changing planet

Built in 1991 to study the prospects of humans in outer space, the facility is a breeding ground for Earth science experiments

ORACLE, AZ — From the beginning, the Biosphere 2 project has included all the components of a large-scale Earth science experiment that has profound implications for human survival in outer space.

Can a small group of people live and thrive in a pyramid-shaped building reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, while cut off from the world?

The answer was “yes”.

In September 1991, four men and four women walked into the enclosed 3.1-acre facility, named after Earth’s first biosphere, and locked the doors behind them for the next two years.

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Biosphere 2 Deputy Director John Adams discusses various research projects at a 40-acre complex in Oracle, Arizona, on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Inside the massive structure, a team of multidisciplinary scientists — “biospheric scientists,” as they’re called — toiled in the rich soil of a half-acre garden, surviving somewhat harmoniously while recording data on the project’s seven model ecosystems.

The key word was “sustainability”.

Then, in 1993, Biosphere 2’s oxygen levels began to drop due to the highly active organic soil.

“What eventually happened is the oxygen started decreasing, and the carbon dioxide started to increase,” said John Adams, Biosphere 2 vice president and chief operating officer.

“It was more of a misstep in communication than in system biology,” said Adams. “They got some chemistry wrong.”

While the cultivation of traditional food crops such as rice was proving very successful, the crop lacked sufficient calories, and the biosphere scientists began to lose weight.

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Biosphere 2 Director Dr. Joaquin Ruiz, who is also Vice President for the Future of the Global Environment, and Dean Emeritus of the College of Sciences at the University of Arizona, poses in front of the Environmental Research Facility on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Times)

“The challenge was trying to feed eight people,” Adams said.

“Nutritionally, they were just fine. They were calorie deficient, so they were always hungry. They all came in with a few extra pounds, in their own words, and came out with fewer pounds than they expected.”

In September 1993, the privately funded mission came to an end amid controversy in the media.

The second and final mission ran into problems in 1994. However, Adams said that neither project failed in any way.

The scientific knowledge they provided helped build on future scientific research as the elbow changed hands.

“We learn more from our mistakes than if we do it right every time. No one has ever attempted to build such a completely closed-loop controlled environment,” Adams said.

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Biosphere 2 research specialist Jason DeLeo shows the vertical charge farm in red light to help the plant grow on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

In 2007, project financier Ed Bass donated the 40-acre Biosphere 2 complex to the University of Arizona whose goal was to conduct world-class climate studies.

Today’s seven typical ecosystems include a mature rainforest with over 90 species of tropical trees, a 687,000-gallon ocean, forested swamps with mango trees, tropical savanna grasslands, a 50,000-square-foot mist desert, and three sloping desert landscapes.

There is also over 300,000 square feet of administrative offices, classroom laboratories, a conference center, and guest accommodation.

The facility attracts a variety of scientific disciplines, such as earth sciences, botany, biology, soil sciences, hydrology, ecology, physiology, and geochemistry. It’s a testament to the long vision of project owner Edward Bass, the American philanthropist who built Biosphere 2 in 1991 at a final cost of $250 million.

Each environmental model, or “biome,” is as close to the real world as possible.

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An exterior view of the 3-acre Biosphere 2 research facility in Oracle, Arizona (Bob Demers/UANews)

“There are other isotopes all over the world, but the vast majority are open to the atmosphere,” Adams said.

A celebration of mechanical engineering, Biosphere 2 presents futuristic architecture in a nearly 90-foot steel and glass structure that resembles a Mayan pyramid in the Sonoran Desert.

The facility has a 7.2 million cubic feet metal frame and 6,500 three-layer-thick laminated windows that are sealed to provide a safe indoor environment.

“It was only natural that it would join the university’s portfolio. What we see now are not just initiatives under glass, but also initiatives that benefit the 40 acres that the university now owns,” Adams told The Epoch Times.

Biosphere II was taken over by Columbia University in 1996 before the University of Arizona took over a decade later with financial support from Bass.

“I think Biosphere 2 is [particle] Earth Science Accelerator. We have now created a tool that is equivalent in size and scale for understanding Earth systems,” said Adams.

Adams said Bass wanted Biosphere 2 to stand out architecturally as the largest free-standing geosciences laboratory in the world.

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The Biosphere 2 research facility still houses the original living quarters for the original team of eight interdisciplinary scientists on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)
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A high-angle view of the Biosphere 2 rainforest. (Bob Demers/UANews)

The biosphere is the only one of its size and scale that exists as a research facility.

Located in Pinal County in southern Arizona, the complex is stunning in appearance, drawing from Mesoamerican influences, and is located in a geographically stable, temperate area surrounded by mountains that enjoys 300 days of sunshine annually.

“It’s a wonderful structure. From an engineering perspective, it’s incredible, and it was built in four years,” said Adams.

Biosphere 2 director Dr. Joaquin Ruiz said the facility is a great model for research projects — an experimental bridge between the lab and the real world.

“Because geometry is so powerful, it has timeless attributes [quality] Ruiz said. “It’s built like a tank.”

The annual cost of operating Biosphere 2 is approximately $7 million for a staff of 17, and they receive funding through visits, donations, and the university system. There have been more than 300,000 visitors since 1991.

Biosphere 2 brings some of the best scientists together under one geodetic roof, Ruiz said, to tackle the important climate issues of the time.

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Visitors explore the desert biome in Biosphere 2. (Courtesy of Steven Meckler)
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A Biosphere 2 rainforest climber inspects the facility’s steel structure. (Courtesy of the University of Arizona)

“Within the biosphere, we’re looking for ways to use the environment to support people,” said Ruiz.

Whether it’s making coral species more resilient in the face of ocean warming or measuring the effect of carbon dioxide saturation on rainforests, the Biosphere 2 mission is very important, he said.

The facility is currently cultivating coffee and cocoa beans to see how they respond to environmental changes to improve their quality.

“Everything you see is here [involves] “Basic science,” Ruiz told The Epoch Times, “but it applies to economic development.”

A stand-alone research facility like Biosphere 2 is practical, Ruiz said, in the face of widespread drought and dwindling global food supplies.

In the past, many famines had to do with politics and economics. We are now at a point where we need to grow more food for our population. “It’s a different environment,” Ruiz said.

“Closer home, look at Arizona. We’re in an existential crisis because of the water. If the whole Earth falls, that’s another dust bowl.”

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Biosphere 2 rainforest region. (Courtesy of the University of Arizona)

Biosphere 2 Research Specialist Jason DiLeo oversees the new vertical “cargo farm” housed in a shipping container that went into operation in June.

The farm uses 88 panels outfitted with thousands of blue and red LED lights to promote an ideal microclimate over a seven-week growing cycle.

Deleeuw said Biosphere 2 donates hydroponically grown produce to local food pantries. Each harvest generates about 115 pounds of food per week.

The idea is to harvest an entire wall. We don’t always understand that, DiLeo told The Epoch Times.

Ultimately, we will use it to study this type of system. Because it’s a freight farm, what we ultimately want is to be able to get off the grid.”

About 100 species of tropical plants, insects, and small animals inhabit the rainforest biome of Biosphere 2, which has been critically researched over the years.

Adams said the biome in one experiment was saturated with carbon dioxide to see how the plants would respond.

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The glass roof and metal cross-beam superstructure of the Biosphere 2 Landscape Evolution Observatory in Oracle, Arizona, on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)
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An experimental biome studying water flow sits just behind a circular window door into Biosphere 2’s Landscape Evolution Observatory on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

How do you test that [in the real world]? There’s not a big dome you can put over a tropical rainforest,” he said.

The experiment found that carbon dioxide at higher concentrations can limit the rainforest’s carbon dioxide “uptake” so that it does not accelerate plant growth.

“Think of it like a sponge. Factories can’t hold more carbon dioxide,” Adams said. “We can show that the model contains many valid operations.”

The ocean biome in Biosphere 2 is equally useful in showing the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as carbonic acid in seawater.

Too much carbonic acid interferes with calcium production in many coral species, leading to massive death.

“We are one of the first places [showing] Negative effect on coral growth. “We can see that happening in many of the world’s oceans today,” Adams said.

As an environmental science facility, Biosphere 2, Adams said, was “ahead of its time”.

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The Ocean Biosphere 2 resembles a coral reef ecosystem in the Caribbean at the Biosphere 2 Research Facility on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)
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The Biosphere 2 research facility in Oracle, Arizona, still shares much of its original futuristic architectural style on January 11, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“We’re not in the climate change debate,” Adams added. “We’re looking at how to forecast and predict more accurately the changes that we see happening.”

“The research we’re doing here doesn’t look at the causes of climate change. What we’re doing is [determining] The implications of this – can we develop tools that allow us to forecast resources? “

Biosphere 2’s environmental research seeks to learn how to better care for the planet — “to be better stewards,” Adams said.

“For me — to my daughter and grandchildren — we want to pass something along [future generations] You will be able to enjoy the same benefits that we have today.”

Alan Stein

Alan Stein is the Epoch Times correspondent covering Arizona.

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