Human terrarium, Biosphere 2, looking good at 20

By Allen G. Breed

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 30 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 26, 1993 file picture, Abigail Alling stands on the balcony of the living quarters inside Biosphere 2 above the agricultural growing area of the complex in Oracle, Ariz.

Associated Press

ORACLE, Ariz. — Jane Poynter and seven compatriots agreed to spend two years sealed inside a 3-acre terrarium in the Sonoran Desert. Their mission back in the 1990s: To see whether humans might someday be able to create self-sustaining colonies in outer space.

Two decades later, the only creatures inhabiting Biosphere 2 are cockroaches, nematodes, snails, crazy ants and assorted fish. Scientists are still using the 7.2-million-square-foot facility, only now the focus is figuring out how we'll survive on our own warming planet.

Next month, workers will begin a new chapter for "B2" — building the first of three enclosed soil slopes in what was once the "intensive agricultural biome," the space where Poynter and the other original "biospherians" grew the rice, sorghum, peanuts, bananas, papayas, sweet potatoes and lablab beans that supplied 90 percent of their nutritional needs.

The new "Land Evolution Observatory" — a 10-year, $5 million project — will help scientists learn how vegetation, topography and other factors affect rainwater's journey through a watershed and into our drinking supplies.

"What makes me really happy is that it really does capture a lot of what we were trying to do in the early years of Biosphere 2," says Poynter, who founded an aerospace company with husband and fellow biospherian Taber MacCallum. "I mean, they're doing some world-class science. They really have the vision of the place. They understand what it was intended for in many ways."

And researchers say Biosphere 2 may be even more relevant today than when those first people passed through the airlocks on Sept. 26, 1991.

Located about 30 miles northeast of Tucson in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, B2 rises out of the high-desert landscape like a giant glass-and-steel ziggurat.

In a story previewing that first mission in 1991, the New York Times described Biosphere 2 — Earth is "Biosphere 1" — as a "combination greenhouse and futuristic shopping mall." But with its network of interconnected domed chambers and observatory-topped tower, anchored by the 91-foot-high pyramid and its 6,500 double-laminated windows, the complex resembles nothing so much as one of those plastic Habitrails you kept your hamsters and gerbils in as a kid.

Which is apt, since Poynter and the other biospherians — four men and four women — were very much human Guinea pigs.

Co-founded by counterculture ecologist John Polk Allen and Edward Perry Bass, the billionaire Texas environmentalist who put up the initial $30 million bankroll, Biosphere 2 was described variously as an example of "vision and courage" and, as Ecology magazine put it, "New Age drivel masquerading as science."

The facility at SunSpace Ranch contained five distinct ecosystems, or "biomes": A mangrove wetland, tropical rain forest, savanna grassland, coastal fog desert, and a 600,000-gallon "ocean" with its own wave-lapped sand beach and living coral reef. All told, nearly 4,000 species of animals and plants lived there.

Passing through the first submarine door into the ocean biome, eyeglasses and camera lenses immediately fog up. In the rain forest, mist wafts from the walls. Tiny snails, crawling out onto paths, sometimes get crunched underfoot. Vines snake along support trusses, and a thick canopy of tropical foliage nearly blocks out the sun in places.

The building itself — with its network of 52 tanks that collected up to 5,000 gallons of water from the air each day and "rained" it back into the various biomes, and two massive domed "lungs" that kept the airtight building from exploding or imploding as outside temperatures fluctuated from below freezing to more than 120 degrees — was an engineering marvel.

But it wasn't long before the biospherians began experiencing serious problems.

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