Skip to comments.The Sad State of Biosphere 2, Sixteen Years Later
Posted on 04/05/2010 4:09:55 PM PDT by Daffynition
Biosphere 2 was an ambitious project to create a self-sustaining gigantic sealed structure where people can live indefinitely. It ended up as a failure in many ways. Sixteen years after the last inhabitants left, photographer Noah Sheldon captured the current state with a series of eerie and captivating photos.
Images copyright Noah Sheldon
One view of Biosphere 2 was that it was the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President John F. Kennedy launched us toward the moon.
Agricultural was an on obvious and critical focus of Biosphere 2. It was planted over the course of a year before closure, and biospherians managed their farming and harvesting of food grown inside once enclosed.
Many week-long periods of simulated full closure tests were performed and data was gathered on their agricultural success. The crew were then able to adapt to their anticipated workload.
Overall these mini-missions were far too short to accurately provide meaningful data as to whether or not the team had achieved a level of agricultural success that could sustain Biospheres eight people for two years.
The Biosphere 2 was commanding in size. At approximately two and a half football fields, it remains the largest closed system ever created.
As one could imagine the conditions were emotionally challenging. Prior to the first closure missions midpoint, the participants had split into two groups and those who had once been friends became enemies.
Biosphere 2 had two closure experiments appropriately named Missions 1 and Mission 2. Mission 1 consisted of eight people during 1991-93. There was a six month hiatus that researchers used to evaluate conditions and engineers provided improvements prior to the second closure with a crew of seven people.
The second mission began on March 6, 1994 and ended abruptly in September of 1994. The crew included Norberto Romo (Capt.), John Druitt, Matt Finn, Pascale Maslin, Charlotte Godfrey, Rodrigo Romo and Tilak Mahato for a ten month test.
The second mission ended due to a financial dispute outside of the Biosphere 2. In fact it was a management dispute over the finances of the project. This conflict resulted in the lock out of on-site management and the mission to be ended prematurely.
Never occurred to them that aerobic bacteria are called that for a reason.
I think they were all moonbats and couldn’t even stand to be with each other....and they had no welfare for the slackers....
Wasn't there a book written about that? "Lord of the Flies" I think it was called.
Now THAT is comedy !
Interesting tidbit from the tour guide: the reason they underestimated the oxygen supply was because of the concrete pad underneath the structure. Apparently concrete takes a long time to cure completely, and while doing so, it consumes oxygen.
As for the friends becoming enemies, as my mother used to say, "Familiarity breeds contempt."
They are all prominent global warming scientists now. sarc
In most people’s minds, Biosphere 2 was a fabulously expensive failure, a $200 million earth-in-a-bottle that choked on carbon dioxide and was overrun by ants. But not everybody feels that way.
"In our view, Biosphere 2 was a tremendous success," said Bill Dempster, the project’s engineering systems director and designer of the sphere’s remarkable lungs. "Many people don’t realize that hundreds of papers were written about it."
Columbia University and the University of Arizona eventually took over the sphere, and its original inhabitants are largely remembered for personality conflicts, controversy and general New Age oddness. But they left some interesting science behind.
Extraterrestrial settlement. Before humanity can establish communities on other planets, it will have to figure out how to live there, most likely in self-sustaining artificial habitats. Those discussions, dating back to NASA physicist Gerard O’Neill’s deep-space cornucopias in the 1970s, fueled Biosphere 2’s conception. Dozens of papers discuss its technical lessons for future settlements. Among them: "The legacy of Biosphere 2 for the study of biospherics and closed ecological systems" and "Living in space: results from Biosphere 2’s initial closure, an early testbed for closed ecological systems on Mars."
Closing the bubble. Though part of the above category,
Biosphere 2’s seal system was so fantastic as to deserve its own heading. The unexpected rise in CO2 and fall in oxygen that jeopardized inhabitant health wouldn’t have been detected were it not for its near-total atmospheric containment.
"They did the best seal ever made of anything," said University of California, Santa Barbara naturalist Daniel Botkin, one of the sphere’s original advisors. Biosphere 2 leaked just 10 percent of its oxygen a year. The space shuttle leaks 2 percent a day. (See "Methods for measurement and control of leakage in CELSS and their application and performance in the Biosphere 2 facility" and "Oxygen loss in Biosphere 2.")
"It motivated a lot of research into oxygen dynamics and measurements of the pathways that the carbon cycle was going through," said Mark
Nelson, one of the original B2 crew members. "In the global biosphere, despite all the research going into climate change, there is still missing carbon. Is it in the land? The ocean? In Biosphere 2, we could pinpoint exactly where carbon and oxygen resided." (Read more in "Self-organized Criticality in Closed Ecosystems: Carbon Dioxide Fluctuations in Biosphere 2" and "Simulation of community metabolism and atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen concentrations in Biosphere 2.")
Agriculture. According to Nelson, the the agriculture system was arguably the most productive half-acre of land in farming history. Sure, they lost a lot of weight, and ate so little as to produce an early human study of caloric restriction, but they did survive for two years on a half-acre output. And contrary to most extraterrestrial-farming thinking, it used old-fashioned soil. "You need a soil that’s rich and uses compost," said Abigail Alling, a
Biosphere 2 inhabitant and director of research. "You can’t do it on hydroponics alone. (See "Soil in the agricultural area of Biosphere 2" and "Crop yield and light/energy efficiency in a closed ecological system: two laboratory biosphere experiments.")
Bioremediation. The inhabitants’ wastewater was treated in Biosphere 2’s swamp biome, anticipating the contemporary trend of using artificial or resurrected wetlands to handle urban waste. (Read "Bioregenerative recycling of wastewater in Biosphere 2 using a constructed wetland: 2-year results" and "Wetland systems for bioregenerative reclamation of wastewater: from closed systems to developing countries.")
Finally there’s the cultural legacy, a general awareness of Earth itself as a largely-closed system that can be easily and unpredictably perturbed. It’s a useful lesson in a geological age referred to by scientists as the anthropocene. "Up until Biosphere 2, there had never been any biosphere in the known universe, except for Earth,"
said Dempster. After the project’s completion, "all of a sudden everybody was very conversant with the idea of a biosphere, and now it’s a common word."
"The humans became a very important part of Biosphere 2," said
Alling. "It’s a very hopeful message. Even though the dynamics were a challenge, we loved our biosphere. If it was well, we were well."
My initial thoughts about biosphere when it started was that it was set up to be an experiment to see if these older nerdy guys could make it with their younger female inhabitants. Oh well, I guess I was wrong...
Why no photos of Bud and Doyle?
...agricultural success that could sustain Biosphere's eight people for two years.In the real world, that kind of success can be found in something called a small farm. :') Thanks Daffynition. I remember a little of the coverage given this budding project by media sycophants; one of the participants was a self-described longevity expert who in interview explained that there's no reason the human lifespan can't hit 600 without any technological advances -- but that the laws of probability led him to the conclusion that surviving beyond that point would be basically impossible, because everyone would succumb to a fatal accident within 600 years. And of course, one drawback would be that the retirement age would have to be moved up to 575.
The bald guy is the one I mean.
I just reread “The Earth Abides” this would still make a nice, post-apocalyptic property.
Let me get this straight. They had a self contained ecosystem that maintained people and could do so indefinitely. But when the funding went away it was shut down. So they had an ecologicly sound haven that only needed more tax dollars to function...
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