Reinventing The Biosphere: The Future of The Research Jewel of the Arizona Desert
Once best known as the set of a Pauly Shore film, the facility now houses innovative climate change research.
I approach Biosphere 2, couched in the cacti-ornamented hills of the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by mountain peaks. I’m enamored with the unusual tale of this larger-than-life science project, but have come to terms with the fact that for the generation that came of age in the 1990s, the memory of Biosphere 2 will likely forever be held captive by the Pauly Shore vehicle, Biodome, which was filmed on this location and which “put the mental in environmental.”
Pierre Meystre, physics professor at the University of Arizona and director of the Biosphere 2 Institute, acknowledges the difficulty of overcoming the public associations with the 1996 teen comedy. “It’s been a challenge to reinvent because of the history,” he says from a room that was originally the command center but which will soon be an exhibition space for the Model City program—a testing lab for projects ranging from solar power to cyber security. “When you mention the word ‘biosphere’ a lot of people think of that silly movie. You have to get past that first reaction.”
When Biosphere 2 first opened in Oracle, Ariz., about a half-hour northeast of Tucson, in 1991, a crew of eight Biospherians spent two years inside without leaving. Today, under the new ownership of the University of Arizona, researchers, staff and visitors pass in and out of the space station-like structure without so much as a second thought. A lot has changed in the 25 years since groundbreaking commenced on this three-acre research facility, the largest airtight system ever built. While the founders imagined it would function as a materially closed ecological laboratory for at least 100 years, in reality it only lasted in such a capacity for about 30 months.
Mestrye, who has thick glasses and a Swiss accent, and Nate Allen, sustainability coordinator at Biosphere 2, have offered to show me around the current experiments, most of them still in their preliminary stages since the University of Arizona only officially took ownership of the Biosphere 2 in 2011. Later I'll see the former living quarters and biomes—rainforest, ocean, wetlands, savannah, and desert—that housed and fed the Biospherians twenty years ago.
The risky nature of such an ambitious, costly and far-fetched endeavor as Biosphere 2 has been a liability for much of its past, but it can also be an advantage to those working there now. “Our potential here is that we can take risks in our research,” says Allen. “We can do experiments with our water and energy infrastructure without worrying about failure since we’re wired as a microgrid.”
According to Allen, the main reason the University of Arizona acquired Biosphere 2 was to build the Landscape Evolution Observatory, now located in the original agricultural biome where Biospherians grew their food. Consisting of three massive industrial-sized steel troughs and hundreds of tons of soil, the LEO will experiment with how precipitation turns into groundwater and how climate change will impact this process. Meant to answer large systematic questions dealing with water, energy, carbon and ecology, it will run for at least ten years.
“We don’t even understand how the stable climate system that we’ve had for the last however long works,” says Allen. “So to predict whether we will have drinking water in the Southwest or whether L.A. will have power coming from Hoover Dam is nearly impossible. That’s why we need to do fundamental science about climate change that looks at the life science aspects.”
That’s what makes Biosphere 2 so valuable—it was built to study Earth in a holistic way and to paint a scientific picture with big, overarching strokes as well as small, detailed ones. Just as the original Biospherians needed a wide variety of skill sets amongst themselves to inhabit the facility, so do the researchers there today to harness the experimental potential.
“We had to bring in all of these ‘ologists,’” says Allen. “This group has to decide before this group decides before this group decides. And if at any point there’s a mistake we all have to go back and re-plan. It’s like building a space shuttle.”
Biosphere 2 was the brainchild of John Allen and a small, devoted group of counterculture activists who’ve used Synergia Ranch in New Mexico as a home base for 40 years. Ed Bass, a wealthy Texan from an oil family who is known for his environmental philanthropy, financed the original $30 million for the project. Since the late 1960s, this group has developed projects all over the planet, including the RV Heraclitus, a ship that sails around the globe pursuing an array of ecological studies.
The first Biosphere mission, was mired in controversy. The media jumped on any scientific misstep or internal dilemma it could—of which there were many, most notably a divisive rift that split the crew in half for most of the mission. As the story goes, those at the helm of the project were caught off guard by the scrutiny and failed to take standard precautions such as hiring a full-time PR person who could have provided early guidance for damage control. This led to further conflict in the eyes of the public and took the focus away from the scientific pursuits of the project, the main intentions of which to study how humans might one day colonize other planets,. In 1995, shortly after the second mission was aborted, Columbia University took over operations until eventually passing them on to the University of Arizona in 2007.
As I meet the current researchers whose offices occupy Biospherian’s prior living quarters, I begin to think that perhaps Biosphere 2 is on the verge of shedding its colorful past and reinventing itself as just another research facility at a tier one university, albeit an emblematic, highly interdisciplinary one. Allen himself knew little about the place before visiting his first time for a job interview, and as we walk the halls I notice they’re conspicuously devoid of homages to the past.
Meystre emphasizes the large role that public outreach and education will play going forward. “You can’t just go and tell people it’s no longer what it was because nobody will believe it,” he says before rushing off to a meeting about an upcoming event. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Left to my own devices, I admire the architecture until the next tour starts. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome had a powerful influence on inventor John Allen and his colleagues—their ranch outside Santa Fe has its own dome. The white lattice structure of Biosphere 2 seems both simple and elegant with its triangular pattern and reinforced glass barrier, but I know this appearance is deceiving, just like the appearance of the original biosphere—the Earth and its ecosystems, Biosphere 2’s namesake—can also appear divinely simple when in fact it’s infinitely complicated.
I survey the five biomes, still mostly intact but definitely worse for the wear, before heading underground to glimpse the engineering feat below, a maze of pipes within a concrete and steel framework. While the original intent of Biosphere 2 didn’t pan out, the underlying focus, just like the underlying structure, was made to last. No longer an airtight system, but still a place where ambitious scientific research can take place with a nod to human impact and import. How are we changing the biosphere? And what can we do to better survive?
On my way out I encounter a teenage boy in army fatigues gesturing loudly to his friend to look at a banana growing in the rainforest biome. I think of a meal I had with John Allen, a force of nature even in his mid-80s, at Synergia Ranch a few weeks ago in which he touched on some of the themes of Biosphere 2.
“The culture in America is that people don’t look at things from a planetary point of view,” he said staring intently at me but lost deep in thought. “The Indians couldn’t even make it during the dry season in the Southwest. But they adapted somehow. However they were tribal, not capitalist. So they didn’t calculate how a handful of people could maximize profits—they asked how the tribe could survive.”
He pauses to build the suspense. “How are people going to survive and prosper? That question doesn’t arise now in the U.S.”
This is the fourth piece in a series exploring energy and the environment in the American Southwest. Read the third in the series.