BIOSPHERE 2: A LIVING LAB ON EARTH SCIENCES

BIOSPHERE 2:  A LIVING LAB ON EARTH SCIENCES NOW RUN BY THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

Biosphere 2: a slice of llife in the Arizona desert north of Tucson
Biosphere 2: a slice of life in the Arizona desert north of Tucson

The Santa Catalina Mountains separate Tucson in Arizona from a burgeoning northern collection of bedroom communities springing up along Arizona 77 running north and east away from town.  Those suburbs stretch from close-in Oro Valley to the more remote Oracle, which backs up against those mountains and the Coronado National Forest.

The steel frame and glass main building houses five biomes and is open to the public year-round
The steel frame and glass main building houses five biomes and is open to the public year-round

Nestled within the Oracle area and just 45 minutes from Tucson and Interstate 10 is Biosphere 2, an Earth science systems project now owned and operated by the University of Arizona.  Tours, usually available daily throughout the year, run about 90 minutes and cost $18-20 per adult.

The ocean and a real reef with wave making machine is one biome early on the tour of Biosphere 2
The ocean and a real reef with wave making machine is one biome early on the tour of Biosphere 2

Savanna, Ocean with coral reef, Rain forest, Mangrove Wetlands and Desert: these five biome zones make up climate areas within the three-plus acre internal “environment” called Biosphere 2.  Following a brief movie in the amphitheater a guided tour touches the five biomes. but also allows access to the two huge mechanical “lungs” that regulate air pressure throughout the habitat.

The self-contained and closed-environment biomes range in size from the smallest, 450-square-foot mangrove wetlands “room” to the 1500-square-foot desert area at the opposite end of the main glass and steel-framed structure.  Overall, the structures comprise more than acres of buildings, tunnels and infrastructure

While on a tour, you’ll get a hair curling experience in the humid Rainforest before you to start to dry out in the Savanna.  The job gets completed in the Desert biome and then you’re off through airlocks into a windy tunnel that connects the main building with one of the two domes that house a giant diaphragm that regulates air pressure in Biosphere 2.

Two buildngs on the right and left of the main structure contain huge metal and rubber diaphragms that serve as pressure regulating lungs in Biosphere 2
Two buildings on the right and left of the main structure contain huge metal and rubber diaphragms that serve as pressure regulating lungs in Biosphere 2
Part of the slice of life in the desert is the energy complex for Biosphere 2
Part of the slice of life in the desert is the energy complex for Biosphere 2

The entire 40-acre Biosphere 2 grounds consist of a visitor’s center with overnight facilities for visiting students, café, curio shop and administrative offices; the four-story main habit facility; a Flintstone-esque apartment complex used by the resident scientists three decades ago; four energy buildings, and two domed structures containing the lungs; along with a network of roads, a soccer field and buffering Sonoran desert landscape.

The Flintstone-esque one-time apartment building and administration building  now serves as the nerve-center for visitors to the Biosphere 2 complex in Oracle, AZ
The Flintstone-esque one-time apartment building and administration building now serves as the nerve-center for visitors to the Biosphere 2 complex in Oracle, AZ

Those hanging round at the end of a tour can roam throughout the main habitat, visit an ocean display about the Sea of Cortez below the large tanks and check out the apartments where the scientists lived during the two different study periods when sealed inside Biosphere 2.  In the apartment area, there is also a special exhibit designed for lunar experiments.

Nestled in the top of the apartmnt complex is a lunar experiment lab where growing conditions for lunar habitats are conducted
Nestled in the top of the apartment complex is a lunar experiment lab where growing conditions for lunar habitats are conducted

Construction of the original set of buildings started in 1987 and reached completion four years later in 1991, costing almost $200 million .

Once Biosphere 2 went into operation, two separate teams of scientists moved into the habitat over a three-year period; but in both instances problems developed and the experiments that required isolated subsistence terminated before completion.

The transparent steel frame and glass skin of Biosphere 2 looks out over the Santa Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona
The transparent steel frame and glass skin of Biosphere 2 looks out over the Santa Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona

The projects were cancelled and in 1995 Columbia University (New York City) took over Biosphere 2, followed in 2011 of the acquisition of the facility by the current owner, the University of Arizona. The UofA conducts many experiments similar to those envisioned by creators of Biosphere 2 some of which are designed to explore the far-reaching effects of climate change on Earth.

A network of tunnels, piping and electrical conduits link the main structures of Biosphere 2 in the SOnoran desert near Oracle, AZ, most of which is open to the public
A network of tunnels, piping and electrical conduits link the main structures of Biosphere 2 in the SOnoran desert near Oracle, AZ, most of which is open to the public

Incidentally, when asked what Biosphere 1 was, the staff of researchers, docents and tour guides quickly answer: “It is the planet we call Earth.”

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