A couple of months ago, I went on a trip to Biosphere 2. Biosphere 2 is about 30 miles north of Tucson and is a very cool place. Currently, “the Biosphere 2 facility serves as a laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and a far-reaching provider of public education.” (source). As cool as that is on its own, the reason why it was built is even more fascinating. In the 1980s, a group of people (I have no idea who) thought it would be great to build a facility to explore and demonstrate whether human life could be sustained in closed ecosystems. Biosphere 2 was built with connected habitats: a rainforest, an “ocean” with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, a fog desert, an agricultural system, and a human habitat.
In 1991, the first mission began – eight humans living and working in Biosphere 2 for two years. There were problems. A lot of the animals didn’t stay in their prescribed habitats and ended up dying in the technological infrastructure underground. When building the facility, the designers consciously chose not to seal the concrete for various reasons, but they didn’t anticipate how much oxygen the concrete would absorb (I can’t remember the exact number, but it was several tons); about a year into the experiment, the oxygen level was down to around 14%, giving the mission team even more problems. And the interactions and relationships within that group of eight went…sour. (Side note: this is unsubstantiated gossip, but I heard that some team members broke the seal and snuck out to meet with romantic interests…) But, they got through it and the mission ended in 1993. In 1994, a second mission began, but they had a lot more issues, mostly related to personnel, and it ended about six months later.
Since that time, Biosphere 2 has been used as a research facility. Columbia University managed it for eight years, and then the University of Arizona took over in 2011 (there was a gap between the two). It’s been used to study global warming, soil geochemistry, the water cycle, and much more. It isn’t a closed system anymore – when I visited, there were cactus wrens nesting in the rafters.
Oddly enough, as I think back on the visit, I see some parallels between my experience in Tucson and the first Biosphere mission. Most obviously, the Biosphere mission was two years, and my term as a Global Mission Fellow in Tucson is two years. Like Biosphere project design, a lot of things haven’t gone as planned since I moved here nine months ago. Like the Biosphere mission team, I have made a lot of mistakes. But, I have also learned a lot, and my experience will impact and inform the rest of my life. (Side note: Did you know that findings from the 1991-1993 mission are being used in the Mars colony project?) Finally, the Biosphere 2 facility began as a closed system and is now an open, “flow-through” system. I’ve never been a totally independent system, nor do I live in one, but I have often acted as if that is the case. I am grateful for my growing awareness and understanding of my interconnectedness with others and my role in the systems of our society, and I look forward to digging deeper still.
If you’re ever in the Tucson area, I highly recommend a visit to Biosphere 2. P.S. Have you figured out what Biosphere 1 is yet? It’s the Earth! 😀
The METRO Center of Tucson
Global Mission Fellow US-2, Class of 2015-2017