Biosphere 2 Ready for New Research

Biosphere 2, that grand experiment with a checkered history, is being readied for new research conducted by the University of Arizona. Tuesday evening, Dr. Travis Huxman discussed plans for the facility with a group of about 30 people at the Cushing Street Bar.

Huxman, who has a doctorate in biological sciences, and is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the U of A, is the new director of the Biosphere 2 research program.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Biosphere 2, here is some background. The concept was to construct a self-contained biosphere to investigate what would be needed to colonize other planets, such as Mars. The main structure, built near the town of Oracle, AZ, is a 3.15 acre greenhouse which was to be a self-sustaining ecosystem containing several plant biomes and an “ocean” to grow fish. The facility was built with $150 million in private funds in the late 1980s.

In September of 1991, a group of “biospherians” (four men and four women) entered the greenhouse for a planned two-year stay. It was intended that they depend only on what was inside the enclosure. As noted in a Wikipedia article: “All seven ecosystems of Earth exist within the confines of Biosphere II. They are a rainforest, a desert, a savanah, a marsh, a farmland (in an area called the Intensive Agriculture Biome), and a ‘human habitat’.” [I guess the ocean makes seven.] “Thus, it contains soil, air, water, animals, and plants. About 4,000 plants and animals were introduced to Biosphere II, and the ocean contained 900,000 gallons of water. It was hoped that these provisions would give the ecosystems enough material to be self-sustaining.”

As with many experiments, things didn’t go as planned. One of the main problems was that organic-rich soil consumed too much oxygen. The original oxygen content of 20.9% dropped to 14.5% after 18 months. That’s the equivalent of an altitude of 13,400 feet, and the biospherians suffered from high-altitude effects. Because they were in a greenhouse, the daily fluctuation of carbon dioxide was about 600ppm (current atmospheric concentration is about 390 ppm). During the day, with strong sunlight, plants revved up photosynthesis and used up carbon dioxide, but respired it back at night. There was also a seasonal variation in carbon dioxide, and wintertime levels reached about 4,000 ppm.

This first phase ended in September, 1993 as planned. After a 6-month transition, another group of seven people entered the greenhouse, but injuries and social problems caused abandonment of the project in 1994.

Columbia University took over in 1995 and operated the facility until 2003. Columbia “broke the seal” and formed a flow-through system to test effects of carbon dioxide among other things.

Through all of this, the facility was open for tours and derived much of its operating revenue from visitors. By 2006 the property was zoned for urban development and in 2007 sold to a developer who had planned houses and a resort hotel. However, the University of Arizona took over management responsibilities in June, 2007. And that brings us back to Huxman.

Huxman said that U of A research will “focus on environmental challenges of the day.” And by that he meant they would study initially, at least, the relationship between carbon, water, and energy, essentially photosynthesis, and how it can be applied to current issues.

Huxman mentioned solar power and the smart grid system since apparently Biosphere 2 gets some of its electricity from solar collectors. He said that with a smart grid system, the power company can turn off an individual’s solar system, which might generate power to the common grid in order to protect workers doing repairs on the lines. Biosphere 2 will not be a participant in the smart grid system so as to prevent such power outages. This will allow researchers to better control variables and also test software that manages smart grids.

Huxman says that under U of A management, Biosphere 2 will be better committed to a relationship between science and society, and that even now visitors can watch graduate students conducting experiments.

One of the planned projects is to build a model of a watershed to study the dynamics of how water gets to plants and how soil structures evolve. He wants to know how water gets into the aquifers. (A geologist could tell him that most aquifer recharge occurs at the mountain front.) After the “naive” model is working, they will introduce plants to see how that changes the soil structure. Once they learn from the model, they plan to try it outside in the real world.

They will also study ways to stabilize mine tailings.

Who is paying for all this? According to Huxman, major funding is coming from the facility owners and foundations. Much of the operating budget will come from visitor admissions; a minor part comes from the University and from corporations.

Will they be successful? Only time will tell. You can visit Biosphere 2. You can get information from , email to or call 520-838-6200. Currently admission price is $20 for adults. Lower prices are available for seniors and children.

And, by the way, the Cushing Street Bar has Guinness on tap.