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A decaying Biosphere 2
January 6, 2010 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Photographer Noah Sheldon documents the collapsing biosphere 2. In case you don't remember it, Biosphere 2 was a terrible disaster - or not. Here's one of the former residents. First link via BLDG BLOG.
posted by serazin (37 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I went there on a field trip! It was when they were still inside, so there wasn't much to see -- we weren't allowed anywhere near where they were working. Neat gift shop though.
posted by hermitosis at 3:05 PM on January 6, 2010


I spent a week at Biosphere 2 just after the initial group was kicked out but before Columbia took it over. I felt bad for everyone involved with that project. Basically it was designed and run by relative amateurs who failed to do simple things like calibrate thermometers or understand that concrete absorbs oxygen. On the other hand, they got the thing built and ran a really audacious experiment. "Proper scientists" might well never have pulled even that much off.
posted by Nelson at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Huh. I went there two weeks ago, while visiting family that decided to move to the middle of nowhere.

I think the 'collapsing' assertion is a bit strong. I'm not positive, but I think the most post-apocalyptic-looking photos were all taken in the now-defunct cultivation area. The rest of the areas looked more or less like I expected them to.

UofA has taken over and they're doing some science there, at least. Sure, it's being surrounded by suburbia that will get closer and closer every year, but I don't see how that will affect the installation. If anything, it'll make their electrical situation easier.

It sounds to me like the UofA doesn't have any official, long-term commitment to the place, so I guess it could all go poof. On the other hand, the people who are working there now seem to be doing work that they think is meaningful, and it seems to be funded for the foreseeable future, thanks to the astoundingly rich Ed Bass.

I may have this all wrong, since most of my information is from a tour guide.
posted by gurple at 3:14 PM on January 6, 2010


Falling apart due to human mismanagement? Sounds like it mimicked the Earth pretty successfully.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:16 PM on January 6, 2010 [22 favorites]


A disaster perhaps, a failure no. We learned that it is really hard to make a biosphere.
posted by vapidave at 3:16 PM on January 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wow. I remember reading about this in a kids' magazine (321 contact, maybe?) around 1990. I didn't realize it was still in use. And of course, it demonstrates that we still have a lot to learn before we can establish permanent bases on other planets.
posted by KGMoney at 3:17 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another former resident of Biosphere 2, the late Roy Walford, believed that it was a success insofar as it inadvertently confirmed the benefits of a high-nutrient low-calorie diet. When food production yielded less than expected, the residents, who were eager to stick it out, were forced to starve a little. Perhaps surprisingly, their cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood sugar levels all improved. Walford, who was the chief of medical operations in Biosphere 2, became the leading proponent of caloric restriction as a way to extend lifespan in humans.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:20 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


We learned that it is really hard to make a biosphere

No, we learned that it is really hard for uninformed amateurs to do so. I guess there is a lesson there, but it probably isn't the one you're thinking.
posted by rr at 3:21 PM on January 6, 2010


Is it just me or from the outside does the Biosphere look kind of like a casino?
posted by jonmc at 3:22 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I went there years ago and was impressed with it (as a building and a concept). I'm sorry to see it in this rundown.
posted by brundlefly at 3:24 PM on January 6, 2010


The Wired article mentions bioremediation of wastewater- I didn't know that was something that came from/was popularized by Biosphere 2. We actually have a system of these artificial wetlands all over Orange County, CA. There's one walking distance from my house and it's stunning- there are different kinds of birds (cranes!) and all sorts of beautiful plants that are living on and cleaning up polluted water. When Jane Poynter talks about how we are transitioning to a society that is biophilic instead of biocidal, I can see exactly what she means. What is essentially a wastewater facility avoids the whole NIMBY problem and actually adds to the natural beauty of our neighborhood.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 3:26 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


The biggest problem of Biosphere 2 was its failure secure Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin, the stars of the original and much more successful Biosphere project.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:26 PM on January 6, 2010 [10 favorites]


"In our view, Biosphere 2 was a tremendous success," said Bill Dempster, the project’s engineering systems director and designer of the sphere’s remarkable lungs. "Many people don’t realize that hundreds of papers were written about it."
Yeah, that could be the Earth's epitaph as well. At any rate, I think that we know what really killed it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:30 PM on January 6, 2010


jinx
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:31 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I went there this year. It's fascinating, and I recommend the "tell-all" tale of one of the participants (The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2) for a great read about it. It's not quite as run down as those photos imply, and I get the feeling that the failures were more in the mismanagement, than the philosophy. There was a lot of infighting, which basically split between those who wanted it as a serious scientific venture, and those who wanted it as a practical experiment to build a self-contained ecosystem. In the first, failling is sort of *useful*, and having humans in there messing around isn't. In the second, failing is... well, failure, and having humans in there to fix things when they go wrong is part of the point.

In the end, I think both sides proved their points (you can't do repeatable science in a system with two many variables, and if you don't actively tend a system like this, it will crash), but the Biosphere project lost out as a whole.
posted by ntk at 3:35 PM on January 6, 2010


If we, as a species, can manage to conduct just three more scientific projects in the 21st century that are as audacious, imaginative, focused, useful, and pressworthy as Biosphere 2, I give us an even chance of eventually realizing that Awesome Rocketship Future that I always wanted (as opposed to the Grim Meathook Future we're more likely to get).

My impression is that B2's tragic flaw was that it was run by scientists: very smart people who were far more concerned with learning from it and advancing the general state of environmental knowledge than seeing it succeed as an engineering project.

In the past twenty years, we've seen the birth and incredibly rapid acceleration of environmental engineering as its own field -- my brother-in-law does crazy shit like build self-contained stacks of genetically engineered bacteria that can turn paint factory waste into Evian. Maybe B2 was just a little bit too early in the game.
posted by xthlc at 3:35 PM on January 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Here's a very-high-level overview of the science that's being done there now. "Failed experiment" or not, the installation is still useful as a large-scale, relatively self-contained structure, e.g., for experiments in which you need to track every drop of water that's absorbed or released in a small ecosystem.
posted by gurple at 3:46 PM on January 6, 2010


"Growing up in a biosphere
No respect for bad weather
There's still roaches and ants in here
So resourceful and clever"

Titanic Terrarium; The Tragically Hip
posted by bwg at 3:56 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the pictures it doesn't really look any worse off than when I was there in 1997. In fact most of the structures shown are strangely pristine-looking.
posted by zsazsa at 4:05 PM on January 6, 2010


I remember the tour guide saying the participants were so hungry they had to turn off the TV because the fast-food commercials were driving them crazy.

And they grew enough coffee beans for one cup each. Per week.
posted by gottabefunky at 4:11 PM on January 6, 2010


Many people don’t realize that hundreds of papers were written about it.

I thought that was an interesting line, too. I was about to make a snarky remark about failures providing more lessons than success, but this was a large-scale attempt at making a closed ecological system, the first endeavor of this scale, and it ran for years. The other attempts I've read about were brief - for example, BIOS-3, the Russian system built in the 1970s, ran for 6 months, and was built for 3 people.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:17 PM on January 6, 2010


my brother-in-law does crazy shit like build self-contained stacks of genetically engineered bacteria that can turn paint factory waste into Evian. Maybe B2 was just a little bit too early in the game.

We have much in common. Only inverted. My brother-in-law can turn a luxury beverage into olfactory waste.
posted by tkchrist at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2010


Jane Poynter's book The Human Experiment was pretty good, though it certainly proved to me that Sartre was right--hell is other people.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:41 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The biggest problem of Biosphere 2 was its failure secure Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin, the stars of the original and much more successful Biosphere project.

Biosphere 2 : Caloric Boogaloo
posted by panboi at 5:15 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


"No, we learned that it is really hard for uninformed amateurs to do so."

I was unaware there were professional Biosphere builders.

"I guess there is a lesson there, but it probably isn't the one you're thinking."

I hope the rest of your day goes better.
posted by vapidave at 5:36 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


And they grew enough coffee beans for one cup each. Per week.

The horror -- the horror --

Much less high profile is the NOAA lab undersea near Key Largo called Aquarius^. NASA has operated 12 missions there in the NEEMO^ program using, uh, "aquanauts" to study humans and technology in closed environments (though most missions only last a couple of weeks).
posted by dhartung at 8:46 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fry: Hey, now that you're in the future, you can go live in an actual bio-dome!

Pauly Shore: An unattractive prospect. While researching for the role, I ran computer simulations demonstrating, incontrovertibly, that the whole bio-enclosure concept is fundamentally flawed. Be it expressed via dome, sphere, cube or even a stately tetrahedron, buuuuuuddy.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 10:28 PM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Collapsing" is a misnomer indeed! We were just out there in August, on the Geek Tour of Arizona. It's still being used for experiments, under the auspices of the University of Arizona.

It's DEFINITELY worth a visit when you're in Arizona. The tour is fascinating, and it's great to see that this supposed "failure", as the media deemed it, was in fact a phenomenal success.

They also have a learning exchange program, where students from other states come to the facility to learn about science, and artists are allowed to stay in the nearby facilities to work. It's a beautiful setting, I wish I had a way to stay there!

I took pix, but haven't updated my Flickr with them. It's rusting in a few places, but the U of A is doing what it can to keep it going.
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 10:54 PM on January 6, 2010


Fascinating! I had completely forgotten about the Biosphere 2. Growing plants on the moon? It's finally starting to feel like the year 2000.
posted by molecicco at 11:23 PM on January 6, 2010


I wonder why they gave up precious farming land for coffee if they were all starving. This article suggests that it takes 2.3 square feet to grow a cup of coffee.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:45 PM on January 6, 2010


Yeah, it didn't really even look that run down. Just some dead plants.
posted by delmoi at 12:27 AM on January 7, 2010


When the human guinea pigs left the structure after two years, crops had failed, noxious gases had built up, the water had turned acidic and the site was overrun by ''crazy ants'' and morning glories.

Isn't that what climate change is about?
posted by vladimirfrolov at 3:24 AM on January 7, 2010


I think I prefer his Cats with Clothes project.
posted by lyam at 6:16 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Image 6/17 had a very Vault-Tec vibe to it. This naturally leads me to speculate as to the real reason Biosphere 2 failed:

Supermutants.
posted by quin at 10:03 AM on January 7, 2010


Am I the only one who thinks that it might be interesting to do a 'Mars' or 'Luna' colonization scenario on Earth?

Bio-dome (or cube, or stately tetrahedron) it up with packages of stuff that are delivered to some forlorn site, but not constructed. Provide the equipment to do what is needed, and start them off in some sort of simulated 'lander' module.

Set 'em up with definitive/measurable signs of success and failure, a time line, and staggered communications (to simulate distance).

Huh. I am now horrified that in my heart-of-hearts I may watch the reality tv show that funds the project.
posted by LD Feral at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2010


Am I the only one who thinks that it might be interesting to do a 'Mars' or 'Luna' colonization scenario on Earth?

Previous allusions to Fallout were made, but this takes it all the way back to Wasteland. Finster Lives!
posted by FatherDagon at 11:22 AM on January 7, 2010


Huh. I am now horrified that in my heart-of-hearts I may watch the reality tv show that funds the project.

This was the premise of Ron Moore's failed (to be picked up) post-BSG pilot for Fox. In the story, a space mission was being funded by Fox and the astronauts were all participants in a reality show about it.
posted by serazin at 12:41 PM on January 7, 2010


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