While we’ve been in America working at the Mars Desert Research Station researching for The People’s Space Program (one of the next outcomes of our ten year project A Decade With Mars) we also visited Biosphere 2.
It’s the world’s largest example of a closed loop system, providing a habitat to learn more about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. It was originally designed to be entirely self sustaining and closed off from the outside world – producing all it’s own food and enough oxygen for people to breathe from the plants inside. In 1991, eight scientists sealed themselves inside for two years, testing the capabilities of the facility as well as performing a valuable sociological experiment into small group living and isolation. They were known as ‘Biospherians’. We’re really interested in this experiment because it demonstrates the viability and issues of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life – with implications for the future of space travel as well as our futures on Earth. The facility is now owned by the university of Arizona and it’s uniquely sealed environment provides modelling and predication for the effects of climate change on Earth’s ecosystems, allowing the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earths.
The facility was named Biosphere 2, as Biosphere 1, with it’s intricate web of interactions between living systems, is Earth itself.
Inside this huge greenhouse like structure the five areas of biomes still exist and are maintained today as they were during the two year sealed mission of the original scientific experiment. These are a 1,900 square meter rainforest, an 850 square meter ocean with a coral reef, a 450 square meter mangrove wetlands, a 1,300 square meter savannah grassland and a 1,400 square meter fog desert.
Some elements of the original project were not deemed entirely successful. The biosphere started losing oxygen, and at one point the oxygen levels became so low that the scientists were experiencing confusion and sleep apnea. Additional oxygen had to be injected, and tracking down where the loss of oxygen was occurring became one of the defining issues of the experiment. It was eventually found that the concrete some parts of the building had been made with was sealing in oxygen as it continued to harden over time, providing an example of how man-made materials or the introduction of even slight changes to an ecosystem can completely tip the balance and produce unknown effects.
Jane Poynter, who was one of the original eight Biospherians, describes in this short ted talk how life after Biosphere 1 made her infinitely more aware of how interconnected and cyclical our systems of living are – the carbon dioxide she would breathe out in the biosphere enabling the plants to photosynthesize and in turn produce oxygen for her to breathe. On her return to Biosphere 1 (Earth) she found it difficult to readjust to a world where the intricacies and effects of human inputs of on our much larger, global systems are not as considered or measured. Biosphere 2 provided an opportunity to focus on ecosystems at a micro level, offering perspective and making visible the much larger systems at work in our world.