We finally got to visit Biosphere 2, which caught the world's (and our) attention in the early 1990's, as scientists tried to find out whether a closed environment with all the necessary supplies could sustain human life. They wanted to research and develop self sustaining space colonization technology. Four men and four women enclosed themselves in a huge glass structure filled with a large variety of plants and some animals and tried to see if something like a colony on the moon would be at all viable. It was a sort of Noah's Ark in the middle of the desert. This very expensive venture was funded by private funds and while the first experimental group lasted in this air tight structure for the planned two years, they had a very difficult time raising enough food to consume the calories they needed to farm and keep the physical plant in operating condition. On a mostly vegetarian diet which included no fat, they lost about 16% of their body weight and were somewhat weak by the end of the experiment. Extra oxygen also had to be added, but they were never quite sure why the plant life could not generate enough for eight people. One possibility was the curing concrete in the newly built facility; no one knew that this process consumes oxygen. A second group enclosed themselves in the Biosphere trying to solve some of these unanticipated problems, but were brought out in less than a year, because the work keeping themselves alive was so consuming, there was not time for the scientific research that had been in the original plans.
This unique complex passed through some different owners and stood idle at times, but presently is owned by the University of Arizona. Most of the plants that are still growing inside, adapted to this unique environment and get little attention from staff today. I was surprised when the tour guide showed us some of the trees, whose branches had to be held up by ropes. Because they were never buffeted by winds as they would be in their natural environment, their branches never grew strong enough to hold themselves up. There are still some vestiges of the unique bio-areas that were created when the Biosphere was first built. The ocean section is still there and the jungle and desert environments were instantly recognizable as soon as we walked in the door. A huge heating and cooling plant is underneath the glass structures. No effort was made to be self sustaining as far as energy is concerned. In the early 1990's solar panel technology was prohibitively expensive.
These days the Biosphere is used by scientists who want to investigate ecological questions in an environment where nearly all of the variables can be controlled. Presently scientists plan to study how water moves through mountain landscapes and how ecology and landscapes co-evolve.