The nine of us, plus guide Marsha Colbert, stepped through an airlocked portal and, as the door closed with a clang of finality, we found ourselves hermetically sealed under glass. We were like peaches canned for the winter or, more chillingly, lizards on display in some “Twilight Zone”-style terrarium. Trapped, I tell you. Trapped.
Yes, I’m being overly dramatic. But when you set foot inside Biosphere 2, deep in the desert outside of Tucson, and embark on a 11/2-hour tour of this ecosystem in an oversized Mason jar, you start to wonder how in the world those eight scientists ever lasted two years sealed away without either killing each other or breaking the glass and making a run for it.
See, for a structure that spans 3.14 acres under 7.2 million cubic feet of glass supported by a 500-ton steel liner, for a man-made series of biomes that include a rain forest, desert, savanna, ocean and orchard (what, no simulated strip-malled suburbs?), it still feels curiously claustrophobic to be inside with no direct contact with Biosphere 1, which, of course, is our beloved Earth.
The promotional video of the privately funded scientific experiment showed the tanned, trim team of eight scientists waving to well-wishers as they entered the geodesic structure on Sept. 26, 1991, and then cut to footage of them exiting, trimmer and slightly paler but still waving as they exited the vapor lock on Sept. 26, 1993.
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But what transpired, both scientifically and psychologically, during their two years behind the glass is what fascinates the approximately 100,000 tourists who yearly visit Biosphere 2, since 2007 managed by the University of Arizona.
I should take the high road and really only care about the timely, important research the university is undertaking to determine how drought conditions affect various ecosystems. But, c’mon, I’m only human; I want to hear the dirt about the interpersonal relationships among the residents, as well as their “failure” to succeed in their goal to live in “a completely materially self-sustaining enclosed artificial environment,” without outside air, water or takeout Chinese food.
Apparently I’m just as scientifically shallow today as people were 221/2 years ago, when the Biospherians (even their name sounds exotically alien) embarked on the grand experiment.
“It really did capture (the) imagination and was what got people even using the word ‘biosphere,’ ” said Colbert, scientist and tour guide. “It entered the pop culture through the news and when late-night comedians started making fun of it. And then, there’s that Hollywood movie.”
Oh, right, the 1996 comedy “Biodome,” starring that quintessential thespian, Pauly Shore. We won’t insult your intelligence with a plot summary. Besides, the real story of the Biospherians is juicy enough. But we mostly had to wait until the end of the tour for Colbert to dish the dirt – and I sensed she sanitized it for us.
“Yes, human relations was an issue,” she said. “I never said they all got along. It was a big building. You could be at opposite sides. ... There were probably a couple romances inside. Jane (Poynter, agriculture expert) and Taber (MacCallum, chemist) had known each other for 10 years before going inside and had not been romantically involved. Maybe something about being inside apparently bonded them. They got married in 1994.”
Poynter’s book, “The Human Experiment,” tells of “nearly palpable hostility” that hung “like a toxic cloud” inside Biosphere.
Imagine being in a dysfunctional family and literally being forced to share the air they breathed. It didn’t help that the Biospherians were under a lot of stress. When the media wasn’t making fun of the mission (four men, four women ... hmm) it was blasting the idea as pseudo-science. And, when the oxygen levels dipped so low that it was as if the crew was living at 14,000 feet altitude, and when an unexpectedly cloudy Arizona winter made growing enough sustaining food difficult, the naysayers uttered a huge “told-you-so” in unison.
Colbert acknowledges problems and privations. Oxygen was lost, she said, not because the rain forest didn’t photosynthesize (it did) or because bacteria gobbled up oxygen, but because the concrete at the foundation in the basement had “10 times more calcium carbonate forming inside the concrete than in concrete outside the dome, (and that) absorbed gases from their atmosphere.”
So the Biospherians were forced to pump in a bare minimum outside oxygen for the final few months. They also broke down and ate produce that they had frozen and kept in the basement because they couldn’t grow enough and were losing belt notches rapidly consuming just 1,800 calories a day while doing physical labor.
Still, a tour of the biomes shows just what an achievement the Biospherians accomplished – and it has been preserved by University of Arizona scientists, who don’t keep the domes fully sealed but maintain the diverse ecosystems.
Of the five environments, the rain forest is the most viscerally arresting and visually compelling. To get to the lush habitat, you walk past the orchard, up a few stairs, down a narrow path linking the savanna and ocean biomes and go through another portal. You emerge onto an observation deck whose view is greatly obscured by Edenic, bold and broad strokes of green. Ferns and bamboo abound, stalks rising from a floor so far below you can’t see terra firma, vines dangling like curtain blinds.
But it’s the atmosphere that smacks you in the face like a sopping dish towel. You have walked maybe 15 feet from the cool and slightly briny-smelling ocean biome to at least a 15-degree temperature gain and humidity that’s off the charts. People often praise kilnlike Arizona for its dry desert clime, so the sudden shift is a sensory shock.
“Some days,” Colbert said, “it’s 90 percent and my glasses fog up.”
The Biospherians needed this tropical clime to produce enough oxygen to survive. These days, researchers are using the rain forest biome as a petri dish to see what might happen if drought and global warming hits, say, the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. They are doing it, Colbert said, by performing periodic “dry-down” experiments, simulating drought to see which species survive and whether the ecosystem transforms into something more akin to a savanna.
Next door for the rain forest, the ocean biome now is used by marine scientists. One of the breakthroughs, Colbert said, is work identifying the extent of viruses in the water. Visitors gaze down upon the faux-ocean from a 40-foot “cliff,” as an artificial wave generator moves more than 100,000 gallons of Pacific Ocean water trucked in from San Diego.
Back in the day, Biospherians used to lounge on the man-made beach at night and gaze through the glass ceiling at the stars.
The guts (and lungs) of the Biosphere resides in the basement, where 26 “air-handler units” chilled or heated recycled and naturally manufactured water into vents to keep the biomes at prescribed temperatures. Visitors get to see the vast boiler room and take a stroll inside one of the two “lungs” that have expanding or contracting rubberized membranes. That’s the tour’s end, and Colbert pointed to a portal behind us.
“You’re going to be able now to do something Biospherians couldn’t – walk through that door out to Biosphere 1,” she said, meaning Earth. “Hang on to your hats, because a big whoosh of wind will come behind you.”
Whoa, we were almost knocked down by the gust. And, speaking strictly for me, I also breathed a huge sigh of relief to be out from under glass.