Biosphere 2 was built in the late 01980s by the most unlikely group: a cast of creatives, a charismatic philosopher-king, a financier, theater nerds, and an amazing crew of engineers. The idea behind Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1, of course, being the Earth) was to build a self-contained structure and set of systems that could test the idea of a self-contained space colony, albeit one that was anchored to the earth. In 01991, just four years after construction began, B2 was launched: a team of Eight “econauts” were sealed into the three-acre habitat, along with a Noah’s ark-load of life. Ostensibly, the challenge was simply to see if they could survive.
A team from Long Now arrived in Oracle, Arizona to tour Biosphere 2 on the evening of October 26, 02022, just as the sun was setting. We were there to investigate: to see if there were lessons that we could extract from B2 and apply at Long Now, specifically to the Clock of the Long Now. We all had done our homework and watched Spaceship Earth, the excellent new documentary that retells the B2 origin story. But nothing can really prepare one for the experience of encountering B2 in person.
Oracle, Arizona, is a long way from anywhere. The Sonoran Desert is a reasonable analog for the surface of Mars. And the ziggurats of steel and glass rise above the high plain like an American Giza.
The point of the original Biosphere 2 was bold, but straightforward enough. It was an experiment to see if it would be possible to create a self-contained ecosystem – one large enough to support the lives of the team inside. It was a space station, right here on Earth. And yet, right away, we had so many questions:
Like, why was there what seemed to be a vent at the top of the pyramid? Why install a vent on a closed system?
And what was that UFO-like object peeking out from behind the main pyramid?
These and other questions would have to wait until morning.
The next day, the team gathered for a tour given by John Adams, the Deputy Director and Chief Operations Officer of the facility. He explained that the tower structure that had so puzzled us the day before was, in fact, an observation tower. It was assumed that the original inhabitants of B2 would need a place to retreat to where they could observe “Biosphere 1” – the earth that they had left behind. The vent was installed to cool the glass pyramid, which, in reality, became a giant solar oven in the middle of the desert whenever the sun shined through it— which, in Arizona, was essentially every day. The vent was a striking reminder that B2 is rarely operated as a completely closed system. The ambition to study earth in a hermetically-sealed system has largely been supplanted by a more practical use for the facility: an ecological laboratory that can control more variables than nature allows. Under the auspices of its new owner, The University of Arizona, B2 is now mostly operated as a very large greenhouse, but it has the capability to do far more.
Biosphere 2’s 676,000-gallon “ocean” is the site of some rather significant science. It was here, in the living coral reef that lives under the faux ocean, that scientists proved that there was a direct connection between the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and decreasing coral calcification rates. There is currently an effort to breed and genetically engineer corals that can survive climate change – and those corals will be tested at B2 before being released into the open oceans.
The rainforest is also the site of important climate change research. Climate modelers have subjected it to drought, to floods, to higher-than-normal temperatures, and to atmospheres with higher-than-normal CO2 concentrations. The point is not to see what happens to the B2 rainforest per se, but rather to validate and calibrate the predictions that the climate models are pumping out about the fate of real rainforests during the coming Anthropocene.
B2’s former agricultural areas, the greenhouses where the original econauts grew their food, are now home to L.E.O.: the Landscape Evolution Observatory. L.E.O. has been called the first step in a new science of terraforming planets – which sounds exciting, but in practice boils down to watering sand and then watching that sand slowly turn into soil. Earth scientists have used B2 to watch dirt “grow” for eight years now. Next year they’re going to sprinkle some hay seeds over the newly-formed soil and see what happens.
The tour really got interesting when we were led into the life support system under Biosphere 2 – the so-called technosphere.
At the end of the tunnel is a giant variable volume chamber. It’s a “lung” that, when the biosphere is sealed up tight, fills and contracts with air. Remarkably, the sealed biosphere still loses less air by percentage volume than the International Space Station. When the sun rises, so does the lung’s 40-thousand-pound metal roof, which is attached to the walls by a flexible rubber membrane. And then when the sun sets, the roof settles back in place. Without the lung, B2 wouldn’t have lasted a single day – the windows would have shattered due to the changing atmospheric pressure inside.
As we wandered the grounds, it became apparent what an impressive feat of engineering Biosphere 2 was — and still is.
That evening, we gathered to consider what we saw at Biosphere 2. When B2 was first in the news back in 01991, it was hailed as a visionary piece of engineering which, by its very existence, asked us to understand ourselves differently. Biosphere 2 was the whole earth under glass, a miniature model of Spaceship Earth. We were meant to understand that while the econauts sealed inside were LARPing a trip across our solar system, the rest of us were not players in a play. We really were on board a ship, eight-thousand miles across and traveling at sixty thousand miles an hour around the sun – and the idiot lights on the life support system were, and still are, blinking red. B2 was a mammoth piece of engineering which embodied a philosophy, a point of view, a warning. And now? While B2 had been made scientifically useful, we all saw what was lost, too. Biosphere 2 has lost much of its original poetry and, with that, has largely fallen out of the conversation.
So, the question came back to us. How do we ensure the Clock of the Long Now doesn't suffer a similar fate?
More from Long-term Thinking —
Explore over two decades of long-term thinking
- Climate Change