Biosphere 2! The Tour

So after making the random snap decision to visit Biosphere 2, Levi and I really had no idea how to go about doing that. We followed the signs out to the middle of nowhere ranch, awkwardly waved at the guard (apparently parking was free) parked where it seemed we should park, and walked into what looked like a reception area. Levi had heard a little about the place, but just like people who live in DC but have never been to the museums, or live in VA Beach but don´t swim, he had never popped his head in. Its strange how sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to make one appreciate their hometown.

As we were making our way to the reception area, I was talking to Levi about what makes Biosphere 2 so special, and the receptionist overheard us and said that she was so fascinated by the place that she relocated across the state just to work there. We asked about tours and balked at the entrance fee of $20 each, with Levi trying to convince me that he would wait for me while I went in, me trying to convince him that since I hadn´t paid him for gas, it would be alright if I paid for both of us, him saying no way, me saying "dude you have to see this place." The receptionist agreed with my sentiment and told Levi he had to see this place, and finally ended the cycle by cutting the price in half! Probably the most passionate receptionist I´ve ever seen.

We walked over towards the introducctory video, talking about how its only when you "demonstrate some real miserlyness," as Levi put it, that people will cut you deals like that. If we had come in just whining about the high price, it would have never been dropped. It was the very fact that Levi was so willing to sit the tour out that made us good hagglers.

The main point of the video was to reiterate that Biosphere 2 was not a scientific failure, which made it especially funny when the first question asked of our tour guide was "Why did the experiment fail?" Accustomed to this reaction, the tour guide unblinkingly went on to talk about the difficulties of living in a closed system. He talked about "Too much work and not enough food." Not only were the eight people in the Biosphere expected to grow all of their own food, they also had to tend 5 wild biomes, maintain tons of complex machinery, and conduct scientific experiments! The intensive agricultural biome provided all of the nutrients the Biospherians needed, but fell short when it came to straight calories, leading to near starvation. This is a worthy lesson to learn, because it is totally understandable that one would focus on nutrition when designing an agricultural system for space, since a deficiency in any one nutrient can lead to serious diseases. So remember, when farming in space, don´t forget your potatoes!

I´d heard about some other problems as well, and decided to ask the guide to confrim or deny the rumors I´d heard that "The concrete sucked up a lot of the oxygen as it cured" and "The ants went crazy." On the first part it turns out I was part wrong, conctete actually sucks up CO2 as it cures, which you would think would be a good thing until you realize that plants need CO2 in order to grow and produce oxygen. There was a dissaperaring oxygen problem though. The Biospherians spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the missing oxygen was going, and finally found it was being sucked up by the rich, organic soil they were using to grow their crops. As the organic matter in the soil decomposed, the bacteria and fungi used up a lot of oxygen, leaving the Biospherians not only hungry but oxygen deprived. Another lesson on taking everything into account when trying to live in a bubble for two years.

The second rumor, on the ants, was pretty much confirmed. Our tour guide (I wish I´d gotten his name, but check out the picture of him pointing above) said that one particular species of ant took over the whole biosphere, an interesting example of an "invasive species" problem in miniature. We finally walked into the biosphere and started seeing stuff, walking into the Savannah Biome, which overlooks the Ocean and Mangrove Biomes.

Our tour guide told us a little about what happened to Biosphere 2 after the sealed experiments, and what the place does now. Its basically become a giant test tube, a bridge between what scientists can figure out in the lab and what they have to study in the field. This is a big gap to fill, since most lab biology is done at the cellular or organismal scale while field science is unavoidably and often unknowingly done at the landscape scale. The idea of bottling up a mini ecosystem that you can modify, then, is kind of unresistible to scientists. In that spirit, Biosphere 2 was first picked up by Columbia University for a few years, and used to simulate rising CO2 levels in the rainforest and coral reef biomes.

As CO2 in the atmosphere rises, plants tend to grow faster since they use the C in CO2 to make trunk, root, and leaf tissues. This effect is a huge potential carbon sink, but at some point, the plants will run into some other limiting factor such as water, a nutrient like Nitrogen or Potassium, or even competition from other supercharged plants. The point of the first Columbia experiment was to figure out where that point is. So they sealed off the rainforest, cranked the CO2 higher and higher, and tried to see where the forest stopped responding with increased growth. I asked our tour guide when they stopped growing, and although he seemed surprised at the specificity of the question he did have the answer, 1,200 parts per million CO2. We´re at about 380 ppm now, we need to be at 350 to be safe from catastrophic climate change, and lets just say if we ever get to 1,200 ppm we´ll have a lot more problems than a lack of increased growth in our trees.

The other experiment was slightly more depressing, both for what it entails and what it means for the oceans. When you open a soda bottle, all the bubbles that rise up out of the water are CO2, which is stored in water as carbonic acid (which happens to be why canned/bottled soda can taste really acidic sometimes). As CO2 levels in the atmosphere rise, so does the amount of carbonic acid stored in the ocean, which is great as a carbon sink but really bad when you realize that carbonic acid dissolves coral reefs, shellfish, and pretty much anything made of calcium carbonate (including your teeth when you drink too much soda). Follow this logic to its depressing end, and you get most of our coral reefs dying off by mid-century. At least in theory.

To test this theory and provide a powerful illustration, Columbia increased CO2 levels in the Ocean Biome until the coral reefs bleached out and died. Hearing this, Levi and I looked at each other and imagined the journey this reef had taken, from being carved out of the Caribbean and shipped in a giant box to Arizona, installed in a big swimming pool, and nourished by a wave machine, only to be killed off to prove a chemically obvious point. And yet this reef´s death seemed worthwhile somehow, like a martyrdom, or at least a canary´s warning. Mostly what it showed was that this place was truly run by scientists, not by caretakers, curators, or entertainers.

We continued the tour, which at this point really felt like taking a tour of the Earth, passing through Savannah and Thornscrub over Mangrove and Ocean, to arrive at the Desert. Bottling up a desert in the middle of the desert may seem like a strange idea, but this was no Arizona Desert. The plants and animals in it were taken from the Baja California desert in Mexico, which apparently is a ¨winter-active¨ desert, meaning that it shuts down in the summer and does most of its growth in the winter. This was important to the Biospherians because it meant that while most of the other biomes were slowing down for the winter, the Desert was speeding up its growth and more importantly, its oxygen production, helping to stabilize the oxygen levels throughout the year.

We descended into the ¨Technosphere,¨ the mass of water collectors, heaters, coolers, and other assorted machines that made Biosphere 2 work. Where else could you find a room called the ¨Desert Basement¨? As our guide explained, many of the machines in the Technosphere were designed to simulate natural processes. He pointed at a water tank and declared, ¨this is a cloud.¨ The tank was labeled ¨rainwater storage,¨ an engineer´s description of the function of a raincloud.
Passing through room after room full of these industrial versions of nature, we came through a tunnel and emerged in the rainforest. If felt just very real and took me back to Costa Rica, and I asked where the plants came from, while someone else asked how they were chosen. Turns out a botanical garden was about to throw their whole Venezuelan collection out, so it was really more serendipity than science. There was an argument in the design process between scientists who wanted to pick and choose species for particular functions and those that wanted to just ¨Species Load¨ and let the system self assemble. The latter won, and of the 4000 species that went into Biosphere 2, 30% have ¨gone extinct¨ as or guide put it.

With most of my questions answered, I got a chance to take a couple of videos. There´s a bit of background noise, but if you turn the volume up you´ll hear a some great stories and see why I liked our guide so much.


I am Admina said...

WOW. I really want to visit this.

Tala Woodward said...

Andon! This is one of my favorite of your entries. Its interesting - I always thought of all this closed system stuff in terms of space, which makes me think of science fiction, which I'm really not all that into...but I really enjoyed the ecological bent that you made much more clear, about the experiments they ran etc...its all obvious stuff, but somehow I never thought about it in detail before.

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ANDON said...

You know you've made it when the spammers show up. Thanks guys!