Hello Friends and Family,

2021 - Biosphere 2, Part 1

Link to this year's index by clicking here.

Biosphere 2 is a facility built in Oracle, Arizona to explore the viability of supporting human life in a closed, self-contained structure as a predecessor to a prolonged manned space flight to distant planets and beyond. The project was begun in 1984 by Ed Bass and John P. Allen with construction from 1987 to 1991. The name was chosen to represent the second known fully self-sufficient biosphere — the first being Earth itself.

There were two “missions”, the first with nine crew members beginning in 1991, lasting two years. The second had seven crew members in 1994, lasting 10 months. The structure is dominated by what is essentially a sealed greenhouse containing various areas such as a tropical rainforest, ocean complete with wave action and coral, upper savanna, and a coastal fog desert. The crew members were able to grow enough food for a low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet which maintained their health while experiencing a modest weight loss. One of the biggest and unexpected challenges was the decrease in oxygen within the sealed system which ultimately was determined to be due to absorption of carbon and oxygen by the exposed concrete inside Biosphere 2.

The complex is now owned and operated by the University of Arizona which is directing research projects including research into the terrestrial water cycle and how it relates to ecology, atmospheric science, soil geochemistry, and climate change. You can tour the facility with a smartphone-based guide to the major parts of the complex.


Last summer, Johnny and I decided to drive down to Oracle to see Biosphere 2. He had never been. You may recall my previous photo blog but I wanted to see what had changed, especially in the summer of COVID.

As you might expect, all visitors were required to wear masks — no problem, Johnny and I were used to it. Also, there were now no tour guides. They had an app for that — which turned out to be both good and bad. The good part was that we could take our time and tour a bit more than was on the formal tour — and there were fewer visitors than my previous visits. The bad part was that we could not ask questions — the app had no answers.


From this place near the beginning of the tour, we could get our bearings. The rainforest area is on the left and the white structure in the middle was the crew quarters. The dome on the right is the west lung. The purpose of the two lungs is to stabilize the air pressure once the crew was sealed inside. Without the lungs, the solar gain could heat the air inside, increasing the pressure, causing panes of glass to pop out of their frames — breaking the seal and invalidating all the data they were recording.


Here is a closer view of the crew quarters. As I recall from a previous visit, we were told that there was only one entrance/exit, which I presume was to assure both the press and scientific community that the experiment was carried out according to the ground rules for the experiment. And that is still how one still gets into the crew quarters.


And here is a closer view of the rain forest. To me, it is not so impressive to see the exterior. After all, the interior contained the plants and animals that were to keep the Biosphereans alive during the time they were sealed inside. Some of the plants provided fruit or other edible components. Some only helped keep the oxygen levels high enough to sustain human life.


From a different perspective, the rain forest does not look particularly massive. However, once the tour route takes you inside, you'll discover that there is more land and ocean areas to provide sustaining requirements. There are trees, vines and land crops — amazing how much area is under glass.


To me, this close-up shot of the crew quarters always looks like this was a structure on a future Mars base. The tower in the middle gave the Biosphereans a place from which to view their surroundings — hopefully, to avoid the boredom that one would experience when you cannot leave the building, no matter how large that building happens to be.


This is an experimental apparatus to redirect light at a planter box. Due to COVID, no one was here to fully explain what they were trying to prove or disprove. The signage was minimal so we had to use our imaginations.


This is a panoramic photo of the crew quarters, tropical rainforest, and attached greenhouses. I love photos like this because this is more like what we see with our own eyes. To construct it, I normally would put my camera on a tripod to take several images, panning left to right. This day, I did not bring the tripod so I had to hold the camera steady — shoot one, turn a bit, shoot another, turn again, and repeat. Photoshop is smart enough to stitch the photos together seamlessly — so you would never know how it was done if I did not tell you.


Moving to the right side of the crew quarters, you can get a better view of the additional area under glass. Note that the University of Arizona is conducting ongoing experimentation but without sealing anyone inside. Most of the experiments are related to the threats imposed by Global Warming.


I mentioned above that the biggest problem encountered by the Biosphereans was the depletion of oxygen that was unexpectedly absorbed by exposed concrete. Once that was determined, the operators had to decide if they should continue the experiment or not.


I suspect the conversation was around whether or not, the results would be scientifically valid depending on any proposed remediation. Eventually, they agreed to inject a measured amount of oxygen equal to their estimate of how much the concrete was absorbing. I thought that was a very clever solution to maintaining the scientific value of the vast (i.e., expensive) undertaking.


Finally, we went inside. The first thing we encountered was an area where the original Bioshereans were growing lemons. I doubt that any of them were expected to eat lemons but lemon juice would certainly spice up the food and beverages that they would consume. Variety and palatability would certainly be big factors in crew happiness — thus anything that adds flavor to their homegrown food would be welcome.


To be continued...

Life is good.

Aloha,
B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com