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Under the Bio-Dome

Exploring a wonder of the world: the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2

By Lesley Kontowicz

Planet Earth is Biosphere 1; we get to visit it every day. But, if you’re in Southern Arizona, a visit to Biosphere 2 is a must! It’s an engineering marvel and one of the largest greenhouses on the planet. Located about a half-hour’s drive north of Tucson in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, Biosphere 2 promises an intriguing look into nature and engineering. Managed by the University of Arizona, the center not only offers tours of unique environmental zones, but also gives students and scientists a unique place to study how natural environments create habitable conditions for human sustainability and the effects of climate change.

Exploring the biomes

The campus is surrounded by dramatic views of the rugged mountains and the rolling hills of the high desert where cacti, yucca, and grasses glisten in the sunshine. My companions and I were greeted by a cool breeze from the mountain, as if to say “welcome!”

The guided tour lasts about one hour and travels through three habitats contained in the 7.2 million cubic foot greenhouse making up Biosphere 2. Starting at the highest elevation, we entered the rain-forest habitat where the humidity is high, the light dim, and the temperatures cool. Bamboo, banana trees, and other tropical vegetation thrive thanks to its weekly precipitation levels.
Biosphere Rainforest

To enter the ocean and savanna habitat, we passed through a doorway in a thick plexi-glass wall. Even though the humidity in this space is significant, it is lower than in the rain-forest habitat, and the light is brighter and the temperature warmer. We meandered along a wooden deck situated at the edge of a cliff, which skirts the man-made ocean below, where six-inch waves are generated every twenty seconds. Separated by only a thick-ply plastic curtain, we descend into the coastal desert habitat, the lowest and most arid room, designed to imitate the Mexican Baja.

A little background

From 1990 to 1994, there were two Biosphere 2 missions involving a group of scientists assigned to live completely sealed off from the outside world except for communication. In the first mission, the team lived for two years inside the bio-dome. The air they breathed, the water they drank, the food they ate, all had to come from Biosphere 2. In 1994, the second team entered for what was planned to be a nine-month experiment. Yet, due to certain problems, the mission was aborted after six months. During that time the facility was much different. Imagine monkeys swinging from the branches in the rain-forest; pigs and chickens rooting through the grasses of the savanna. The plants and animals existed for the purposes of human consumption and sustainability. Today, the only mammals in the Biosphere are human.

Entering the "Lung"

From the greenhouses, we descended into the belly of the beast, where we witness the mechanics that keep the facility running. The basements (a.k.a. the Technosphere) are a web of piping, ductwork, and huge containers for water filtration, heating, cooling, and pressure control systems. Our guide explained the extraordinary engineering and functionality behind each system.
Biosphere Lung

The South Lung is the most impressive room, in my opinion. The experience made me feel as if I were in an episode of the X-Files. To enter the “Lung,” we first crouch through an airtight doorway like those seen in submarines. Then, we traversed down a long tunnel with a fairly steep decline until reaching another airtight door—the door that leads into the Lung. The door opens, and we are literally sucked into the cavernous Lung. It’s as though the room had actually inhaled us. Then, the airtight door is sealed shut, and suddenly it’s eerily still—like the Lung is holding its breath; compelling me to also hold my breath.

As I silently reminded myself to breathe, I marveled at the strangely space-age setting before me—a huge circular room with a concrete base and a water reservoir in the middle. About 30 feet above the reservoir hangs a six-legged, 500-ton stainless steel saucer suspended between the concrete walls with a black, parachute-like material.

The guide—his echoing voice adding to the spacey, X-Files vibe—explained that this room literally functions as a lung. Throughout the day, as heat increases in the glass dome, the room absorbs the increasing air pressure causing the parachute-like suspension rigging to expand and lift the saucer from the floor. Then at night, as temperatures and air pressures slowly fall, the lung contracts and the suspension parachute lowers the stainless-steel saucer until its legs rest on the floor. Without this pressurized “breathing” system, the guide warned that in one day’s time the 6,500 windows comprising the Biosphere 2 greenhouses would explode.

After that cautionary tale, it was time to exit through the exterior door. As we passed through, the change in air pressure had the opposite effect from when we entered, and we were thrust out, as if being exhaled or coughed from a lung.

Back to Earth

Suddenly, we were transported back to Biosphere 1—the glorious high desert of planet Earth—fresh air, warm sun, chirping birds, and scurrying lizards. The guided tour concludes here but we continued with a self-guided tour through subterranean hallways for a view beneath the ocean habitat’s surface, as well as a tour through a portion of the mission members’ former living quarters.

So, if you’re interested in ecology, gardening, hydrology, engineering, the prospect of a futuristic life in a dome, or just want to pretend you’re in an episode of the X-files the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 might just blow you away.

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