The Rainforest in the Desert

Posted on August 8, 2008. Filed under: Culture, Health, Science, Travel |

There is much of international interest in the news currently, and I’ll leave you to form your own opinions about those events. I focus here on a project which may benefit the worldwide community, and is located in my state of residence, Arizona, USA.

I’ve been fascinated to watch the developments of the latest NASA mission to Mars, involving the Phoenix Lander, and recently finding water on that planet. Although American in origin, I truly believe projects such as this can bring the world together to explore, at some point, colonizing either the moon, or the planet Mars. It is my fervent wish that extra-terrestrial planetary bodies will not be seen as the “property” of any one nation, but truly as the combined social and scientific explorations of many nations together.

In this spirit, albeit with a bit of local pride πŸ˜‰ I’d like to discuss Biosphere 2, located a scant 20 miles from where I sit typing.

Biosphere 2 has now fascinated me for two decades, from long before I actually lived nearby. I first visited with family during the 2-year experiment, when eight “Biospherians” entered and lived in this completely closed, and theoretically self-sustaining domed environment. It was meant to study, in close proximity, seven different earth environments including a rainforest and an ocean! (This, in the dry Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona; an area totally landlocked, and anything but tropical). The project also planned to study climate change and its effects on plant and animal life, long before the term “global warming” was coined.

During my first tour there, in the early 90s, the project was managed by its founders, Space Biosphere Ventures. We tourists were given a lecture, and then a guided tour around the outside of the facility. We were, of course, not allowed inside the sealed environment, as it was an active, live, two-year contained laboratory. There are articles I shall link to which tell the story of the construction and philosophy behind the project, but I feel it’s important to point out that it was privately funded, and designed to be self-sustaining.

I was startled to see one of the Biospherians hoeing a field in the intensive farming environment. It’s hard to give a sense of how huge the Biosphere is—it’s commonly referred to as being the size of three football fields, and “the largest closed system ever created”—but it is a truly amazing sight, both from a distance and close up. It took about two hours to walk all the way around it and see and be told all about what was going on inside.

Each Biospherian had their job to do. There was farming, gardening, lab research and analysis. They grew their own food, recycled their waste, and coexisted with a variety of plant and animal life. It still amazes me that they have an OCEAN in there. A small one, but it has waves, and sea life, and everything!

The Biospherians were local and worldwide celebrities. They were on every television news channel as they entered the dome, to be sealed in for their two-year experiment. They waved to the crowd as the cheers erupted, looking just like astronauts in their uniforms. I couldn’t imagine being sealed inside a dome with seven other people for two whole years! Even though they had demanding jobs, emergency rations, and plenty of recreational equipment, it didn’t seem like something I’d like to do!

We all watched, breathlessly, as the experiment proceeded, because if this was successful, it was in all our imaginations that a similar structure could be built on Mars! or the Moon! The domes were based on designs by the iconoclastic R. Buckminster Fuller.

{An aside: Years ago (I’ve always been a science nerd) I met “Bucky” in an elevator at a San Francisco hotel where he’d been giving a lecture. I’d attended, and thought I’d head up to the rooftop restaurant to have a spot of tea. (I was all by myself, and very young. I look back now, and am amazed I used to do things like this at that age.) Well, Bucky and his entourage got into the elevator, too, and he looked right at me (I had to look down, he was a little guy) and asked if I’d enjoyed his talk. I shook his hand and told him it blew my mind. He asked if I’d understood it. I blurted out “No!” and blushed furiously. (I used to blush a lot in those days.) He chuckled softly to himself, as I plastered my tongue-tied self against the wall.}

Bucky’s domes are world famous, and provide structural integrity along with beauty. Biosphere 2 is very beautiful. The visual impact of this delicate-looking structure in its desert location justifies its existence even if it never did an experiment in its life!

Things didn’t go as planned in the dome. The environment, meant to be self-sustaining, was losing oxygen. There wasn’t enough food; the scientists were hungry. And, the eight-member crew split into two political and social factions. Some members barely spoke to one another. Again, I’ll refer to outside sources for much of their fascinating story, including an interview from one of the hungry Biospherians. Many considered this a “failed” experiment, as oxygen had to be pumped in from outside, and the goals of the project changed as the social conditions deteriorated. I still think it’s an amazing effort. It’s crucial, if we as a species ever do colonize other planets, that we know our structures will function. Most likely, on the moon, we won’t be able to pump in oxygen, or send out to McDonald’s if the dwellers run out of food!

In this Wikipedia article, I was particularly interested in the section titled “Psychology and Conflict”. It is, of course, vital to know that a structure housing humans in a non-earth atmosphere can be relied upon. Equally vital is the study of humans living together in confined spaces for a long time. While there have been a number of studies done on living conditions in arctic environments, most of my knowledge about such things comes from Science Fiction. There are any number of plots where either the crew’s air or their patience runs out—not a desired outcome in either case.

Synchronistically, a few days ago an episode of one of my favorite Sci-Fi shows aired on television. Eureka is set in a fictional town where most of the inhabitants are geniuses and doing amazing research into unbelievable projects. Its existence, let alone the work going on there, is highly classified, and the show’s “glue” is its “regular guy” Sheriff who tries to keep order amongst these eclectic and overly-intelligent residents. In the episode “What About Bob“, we learn that Eureka has a long term Biosphere-type experiment going on, but their biosphere is built deep underground. Unlikely mayhem takes place, however the questions asked by the “real” Biosphere are asked, here too, without, unfortunately, any better answers. Stay tuned.

After going through a couple of ownership and management shifts, Biosphere 2 is now managed by the University of Arizona as a science center to research our impact upon our own planet. Many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when our local “U” took over, as we’d heard the facility would be razed for a housing development!

One can now tour inside the domes! I’ve been back, and I have. It’s this kind of research that gives me hope for the human species.


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23 Responses to “The Rainforest in the Desert”

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wow, it’s like that jim carrey movie except this is for scientific purposes and that was supposedly for entertainment until carrey’s character found out.

and yes i can’t imagine living with 8 people for 2 years. i couldn’t even do one month in macau!

very interesting stuff, thanks for posting this!

I have never heard of this before, Muse. Hopefully on Sunday I can look into it some more. How interesting! The things you get to see…you could write a book.
Thanks for sharing.

I just want to say hi πŸ™‚

Wait, presumably R. Buckminster Fuller the guy buckminsterfullerene was named after, right? And you met him! That’s so cool!

Biosphere 2 sounds pretty impressive. I’m glad it didn’t get razed for a housing development. That would be awful.

I still remember one of my high school science teachers who continually drove home the point that there is no such thing as a failed science experiment because even in so called failure, you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to something else.

Thanks, Muse. This was an interesting post.

You’re right, sulz! In fact the sci-fi show Eureka I mentioned also had that component; the residents of the town would watch the biosphere people on camera to see what dramas unfolded. They didn’t make clear whether they knew they were being watched. I knew it reminded me of something, and I did see the movie The Truman Show. I imagine living in Biosphere 2 is somewhat like living in the International Space Station. I’ve read novels about that experience, too. Thanks! Glad you found it interesting.

Hmmm, maybe I will write a book, BD! Yes, do look at all the links when you get a chance. (I know I put a lot in.) πŸ˜‰ You’re welcome!

Well, HI, back, kaylee! {{{waving}}} πŸ™‚

The very one, B0bby, also known as buckyballs πŸ˜‰ He was very old, and would be transported by his handlers from place to place to give his rambling talks. He was dreamy-eyed, and optimistic. I liked him. πŸ™‚ I’m very glad as well, thank you. If it comes up in local politics again, I’ll say we have people in the UK supporting its continuance. πŸ˜€

Absolutely, teeveebee. If every researcher stopped after the first experiment didn’t go as planned, well, hardly anything would get discovered or done! I’m so pleased you found it of interest! πŸ™‚

[…] bookmarks tagged eclectic The Rainforest in the Desert saved by 9 others     jambajamba1 bookmarked on 08/10/08 | […]

Way cool Muse! The idea of a self-sustaining dome was something that I would have imagined to see only on like Sci-Fi or some movie. I had no idea that there was one here in the states that was done not too long ago. And an ocean in AZ, the thought of that is awesome, even if it is in the dome. I bet seeing the entire dome in person is a site to see! I agree with you on the thought of not just one nation “owning” the colonized property of the Moon or even Mars, but it would need to somehow be seen as possibly international property to avoid any more wars over land and such.

It is indeed, Shane, thank you very much! The site is a bit of an anomaly as it is very much a tourist attraction (although not one of the better known) but also an active research facility. It seems like it must have been weird for the Biospherians to have us tourists staring at them from outside, while they were trying to do their considerable work. You are so right that we certainly don’t need any more wars over land; and to have them about planetary bodies would just be absurd. Many, many nations have much to contribute to any project, and for now, we all share the same precious planet. πŸ™‚

you met Bucky?! How cool! ,,,and he got to meet you! How lucky was he!!!

utterly fascinating. The human dynamics part is the most interesting to me…

Psychology and Conflict…their social behavior interests me. Whereever we go-there we are!

seeing: πŸ˜€ I’m not sure his meeting with me was as memorable for him as was mine with him for me. I wasn’t quite as, um, verbose as I am here on the blog! πŸ˜‰ It is indeed fascinating how we react in close quarters, and drat you tell me—I’ve been trying to get away from myself upon occasion, and you say I can’t!!! 😦 πŸ™‚

CuriousC, I suppose colonies have always had this aspect, but when we think how it’s vital that we all get along somewhere like the Moon, it indeed becomes something to contemplate. Little conflicts can escalate into big ones, as we see looking at world events. I remain hopeful, though. πŸ™‚

Although American in origin, I truly believe projects such as this can bring the world together to explore, at some point, colonizing either the moon, or the planet Mars. It is my fervent wish that extra-terrestrial planetary bodies will not be seen as the β€œproperty” of any one nation, but truly as the combined social and scientific explorations of many nations together.

I couldn’t agree with you more, Muse.

I don’t know if you have seen it but this is something in England that has fascinated me for years.

[…] had written a post that had me thinking and wanted to do a post about. And now her new one on the biosphere had me thinking even more! So two post responses […]

Sorting out the technical issues boils down to engineering. The psychological ones – not so simple. It’s kind of like an extended season of ‘Survivor’ where nobody gets voted off the island.

Will look into the links you have given. Interesting! Should we call that an ocean or a huge lake?sea? Was just wondering how big the water body must be to be called an ocean?! Will have to look into that also. Well, you have given me something to study! πŸ˜€ Thanks πŸ™‚
8 people – conflicts…work for a psycho-analysis?!

I was thinking of the Space Station and wondering if it’s just for the effects of weightlessness that they rotate the astronauts…whether psychology plays a part. Of course with Mars they would be there for a long long time really as they would have to overcome the affects of weightlessness over an extended period. I thought I read somewhere that as it stands they would not be able to come back because of the impact on the bodies so maybe they would literally have to colonise…interesting. Of course the technology may not be too far off to make it possible.

I remember reading about this and also about the climate controlled domes that are/were in Europe for holidays….do not know if they are still around. That might be something we may have to look at here in regard to the ozone layer in the far future, who knows?

I am going to look up that sci fi show, I have never heard of it and am always on the lookout for ones I have not seen before. Very interesting post and comes after the Bead’s post exercised my brain and also Kaylee’s one on search terms….what’s happening …why is everyone philosophizing at present…where are all the quick memes? Maybe it ebbs and flows…much like the ocean in the dome…. although can that ebb and flow without a moon and its effects or does the moon still have the same effect in there? Hmm more research needed.

Thanks so much, Will. I had no idea that was in England. It’s fascinating to see what they are doing with the closed environment there. The research on plant life and growing conditions seems like it could greatly benefit how we are all going to go on and share resources on our little blue globe. I really appreciated the link, I’ve only begun to explore there! πŸ™‚

BD, thank for linking me to your incredible post. I read it once and plan to digest it a bit (along with breakfast) πŸ˜‰ but it’s wonderful, and brave, and very you. πŸ˜€

Ah, good point, kyknoord. I hadn’t thought of it as an extended episode of “Survivor”. Hmmm, I may just take my name off the volunteer list. πŸ˜‰ I’m pleased to learn that, as a technical person yourself, you believe the engineering issues can be sorted out. I’m sure there is a branch of psychology dedicated to close cohabitation, but, in the sci-fi novels I’ve read, there’s usually something they didn’t see coming…

Hi Apar! I think they call it an “ocean” even though it’s not very big, because they are studying the ocean environment in there. They have coral and sand and many kinds of salt water sea life. Actually more like a large open aquarium, really—except that they would eat some of the fish! I’m glad you found it interesting! And, yes, some of those Biospherieans could do with some psychoanalysis. πŸ˜€

Some astronauts stay in the Space Station for a year or more, but, in the end, they know they can leave. That must make a tremendous difference. I’ve read that too, about colonizing Mars, Magik. It seems the first people born there would be very tall and very thin, and wouldn’t be able to survive in earth’s gravity. The scientists may be working on that. I remember from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey that they emphasized how important it was to do lots of weight-bearing exercise to keep their bones from turning to mush! Eeek! I didn’t know about holiday domes in Europe! Did you have a look at the one Will links to above? You’re right, a lot of us seem to be in a philosophical mood at the moment. Ebb and Flow. I like that. Moods can be that way. πŸ™‚

I just checked Will’s link …that looks interesting and will tell my husband about it …he goes back for a long break in a few years and likes it down there. I wonder where or what the thing was I was remembering….it was in the eighties when we lived there…people were taking holidays inside these domed holiday resorts because the UK weather was so unreliable. Shall do some research. Need to check out the sci fi show too.

I’d like to know more about those domes, MQ, thanks! That one of Will’s looks very interesting, and perhaps I’ll get there too when I’m out prowling around crop circles. You can learn more about Eureka here, and even watch the last seven or so episodes online. It’s in its third season here though, so you might want to scare it up from the beginning. They have an Australian resident in Eureka. Don’t know if you’d choose him to represent your country though. πŸ˜‰

[…] Biosphere II is doing some really good work now in its latest incarnation. There is a ten minute interview here, which explains some of the hydrology and biological systems work they’re doing, and what interested me the most is a facility which will be open to the public to view and test which kinds of alternative energy sources would be best for a particular home or business. Here in Arizona we’re having local elections on Tuesday, and some of the candidates are running on a “solar” platform. With 300 days of sunshine a year here, there is no reason (other than the initial financial investments) that most of our power cannot be solar! I’ve read that Germany has more solar power than we do, with many fewer sunny days; but they have government incentive programs to get it done. Wish us luck on Tuesday! […]

“In this spirit, albeit with a bit of local pride πŸ˜‰ I’d like to discuss Biosphere 2, located a scant 20 miles from where I sit typing.”

I’m just wondering about this Biosphere 2, can you make this on a topic so everybody will enlighten to it πŸ˜‰ just a suggestion..

Brenda B. Endsley

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