Arizona Noah’s Ark. How the experiment to create a closed ecosystem “Biosphere-2” failed

We are building a large-scale colony on Earth, completely isolated from the outside world, planting plants there to generate oxygen, importing livestock, and settling eight colonists for two years! A great idea for a scientific experiment on the creation of closed life support systems for possible colonies in the future on the same Mars. However, in this idea there is a serious flaw – people. They were one of the main reasons for the failure of the ambitious scientific experiment “Biosphere-2.”

What is Biosphere-2?

In the 1970s, American financier Edward Bass, a native of a wealthy Texan family who earned billions in oil, met John Allen, an ecologist, engineer and inventor of Biosphere-2. Allen had ideas, Bass had money that could be spent on these ideas. In the 1980s, these ideas crystallized enough into a project for which Bass did not regret allocating $ 150 million.

Allen planned to place 10 square kilometers of land under transparent domes, populate their plants, animals and people. What for? He wanted to check how much life is bending, whether it is possible to enclose it in a sealed box and whether it can exist in it in a balanced way. In addition, “Biosphere-2” could show (at least approximately) whether a person can take with him the habitual habitat for the colonization of other planets.

Photo by Peter Jon Pearce
Photo by Peter Jon Pearce

Construction began in 1987 in Arizona. It was complicated by the fact that the window seals and other structures had to be as much as possible airtight, in order to reduce air leakage to a minimum. Otherwise, the team would not be able to record changes in the oxygen density under the dome. In total, “Biosphere-2” concentrated 180 tons of air.

Since during the day the air heated from the sun and expanded, and at night, on the contrary, was compressed, engineers had to level out these pressure drops. For this, it was decided to build huge domed diaphragms, which were called “lungs.”

In total, the building at the start was about 20 tons of biomass, represented by 4,000 species. At the same time, it was expected that 5-20% of them would simply die out. All this biomass was distributed among five wild biotopes (tropical forest, mini-ocean with coral reef, mangrove swamps, savannah, foggy desert) and two more anthropogenic – fields and vegetable gardens, as well as residential areas with laboratories and workshops, where the man dominated. The least place was occupied by the ocean – only 450 square meters, while the fields and gardens for the eight future “bionavt” occupied an area of ​​2500 square meters. They were settled by four goats with a goat, 35 hens with three cocks, two sows and a boar. In the local pond lived fish.

The separation zone between the biotopes in the foreground and the ocean is in the back

Under all this there were rooms with technical infrastructure, and outside it was installed a natural gas station, which fed the whole complex. The closed ecosystem had to provide 100% of itself with water, food, fertilizer waste and air. Calculations showed that all this is feasible. But as it usually happens, soon after the beginning of the experiment something went wrong.

The Edenic Tabernacles?

Eight volunteers, four men and four women, first entered this earthly paradise on September 26, 1991. Before them there was a simple task: to leave back not earlier than in two years. Naturally, all these months the team was once bored. They had to work on the field, take care of livestock and conduct planned experiments.

” To make pizza, I had to harvest a wheat crop and make a dough.” Then feed and milk the goats, then get the cheese. In Biosphere-2, it took me four months to cook pizza, “ one of the participants in the Jane Poynter experiment told TED Talks. According to her, she spent two years and 20 minutes in an isolated world.

True, Jane is not completely honest here. After a little over two weeks, she cut off the tip of her middle finger while working with the machine to peel rice. A local doctor from the team tried to attach him, but did not want to heal his finger. Jane was urgently evacuated from paradise and sent to the medical center, where she sewn her finger in place. After seven hours she returned to the Biosphere.

But she rarely mentions this incident. More Jane likes to talk about how exciting it was for the first time to breathe a really different air, which, besides her, only seven people breathed in the world. And feel part of the biosphere.

” When I exhaled, my carbon dioxide fed the sweet potato that I grew.” And we ate terribly a lot of sweet potato. And this sweet potato became a part of me. In fact, we ate it so much that I became orange from it. I literally ate the same carbon time after time. In a bizarre way, I in some sense ate myself.

The crack in the heavenly ark

The first out of man’s obedience was the desert: the accumulated moisture on the top of the dome generated an almost continuous rain above it. Corals began to die in the ocean: water absorbed too much carbon dioxide.

Over time, both the sensors and the colonists themselves began to notice a drop in the oxygen level in the local atmosphere. The content of this extremely important element for 16 months decreased from 21% to a critical 14%. As studies showed at the end of the experiment, there were too many cement structures inside Biosphere-2 that absorbed carbon dioxide and thereby reduced the concentration of produced oxygen.

People for a long time had to live in almost high altitude conditions. Oxygen starvation, of course, adversely affected the health of the “bionauts.” Both on the physical and on the mental. Jane remembers that their doctor, quite old by that time, a man, at some point already was unable to add up the numbers. Some members of the team could not finish the sentence, since they had to breath in the middle.

– You wake up, gasping for air, because the composition of your blood has changed. And then you do literally this: you stop breathing, then breathe in, and it wakes you up. This is terribly annoying.

Photo: Dave Mosher / Business Insider

In addition, out of control came out the microflora of the tropical forest, which began to develop too quickly. Unexpected reproduction of microorganisms and insects caused additional oxygen consumption. Especially they were produced in chernozem. For the experimental fields, the best and most fertile one was chosen.

The media, which before had been skeptical about the experiment, in some cases calling its participants a “sect of survival cult”, trumpeted that the team is literally slowly dying. All these factors led to the fact that the leadership decided to include the supply of oxygen to the paradise from outside.

Human factor

But one of the most important reasons for the failure of the experiment was the human factor. None of the members of the team “Biosphere-2” has been in isolation for more than a couple of months. Only Taber McCallum had the experience of a three-year sailing trip. The discord in the team quickly divided the eight into two groups, which, according to Jane, even after so many years do not tolerate each other’s spirits.

Each group had its own vision of how it would be better and more correct to continue the experiment. Some believed that it was necessary to unload the crew and transfer part of the scientific work to scientists outside the dome, sacrificing full isolation, to allow the import / export of equipment and samples. Others believed that it was necessary to completely preserve the purity of the experiment and cope with their own efforts. They feared that the opponents would carry out the experiment before importing food, which would be a real failure of the project.

As a result of the conflicts, the team could not work together and smoothly move forward. People dined separately, they tried not to look into each other’s eyes and talked very seldom.

Conflicts were aggravated by a lack of oxygen and food, people became depressed, irritated. The same insects and microorganisms that devoured oxygen, adversely affected the growth of crops. The team was forced to switch to a low-calorie diet with a low fat content.

The preacher of the diet, by the way, was the same doctor of medicine Roy Walford, who was trying to sew Jane’s finger. He was sure that the person’s daily diet should be limited to 1500 kilocalories without fat, which would increase the life expectancy of a person to 130 years. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 79 years (11 years after leaving Biosphere-2) as a result of respiratory arrest associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Some experts suggested that it could be the result of low energy intake in the scientist’s body.

If Wolford was prepared for such a diet, then many other participants such a restriction in food was not to the liking. Constant harvests, many hours of labor in the fields … the team did not leave the thought of food, and their weight melted like ice cream on the hot asphalt. Taber of a real big man turned into a lean martyr, dropping 27 kg, eating only fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, eggs and goat’s milk products.

So Roy looked right after leaving the dome and when he was already tired enough

Meat team saw only on Sundays – some chicken or fish. In order not to lose a single precious calorie, some members of the team, according to Pointer’s memories, licked plates after each meal.

Nevertheless, Wolford, who regularly took blood samples from all participants, found that the indices were approaching the ideal: the cholesterol, insulin and glucose levels fell, and blood pressure normalized. But the “bionauts” were not happier from this.

In November 1992, some colonists started eating seed stocks that were not grown inside the building. Against the backdrop of reports in the media about caches with food, product smuggling, and charges of forgery, the scientific advisory board of the project as a whole decided to leave it.

At the same time, the public had an opinion about Biosphere-2 as a kind of Olympic sport (they say how long they will last without opening doors), and not as a scientific experiment, a theory that is worked out on the model, gradually making changes. Thus, by the end of the experiment, the background around him was mostly negative.

Aftertaste of the experiment

In September 1993, the doors of Biosphere-2 were opened. And they released the exhausted colonists from there. Here is what Jane Poynter says about the moment of deliverance:

– I would say that we all went out somewhat nuts. I was excited to see my whole family and friends. For two years I saw people through the glass. And then everyone ran to me. And I recoiled. They stank! People stink! We stink with hairspray, and deodorant, and all such nonsense.

In 1994, the second mission of the “bionauts” began. Already in a different composition. Concrete was carefully sealed and prepared to spend 10 months in confinement. But at first two of the dismissed members of the former team broke into the dome in protest, opened several emergency exits, violating the tightness for 15 minutes. Also, five glasses were broken. The commanders of the new crew left the dome one by one, and in June 1994 the sponsors abandoned the project and closed its financing.

Despite all the millions of dollars, spacious rooms and the best black earth, the first mission to Biosphere-2 can be considered a failure. People could not achieve a stable circulation of oxygen in their dome, and permanent crop failures and proliferating pests placed them literally on the brink of survival. In addition, this eight of the colonists demonstrated that man is one of the weakest links in such isolation.


“Biosphere-2” and still stands in the desert of Arizona. Now it is rather a botanical garden under the dome, which belongs to the university of the state. There are experiments, but not so large-scale. Constantly there are excursions for schoolchildren and tourists. One of the attractions that are shown during the excursions is an inscription left by the former “bionaut”:  “Only here we felt how dependent on the surrounding nature. If there are no trees – we will not have anything to breathe, if the water gets dirty – we will not have anything to drink. “


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