CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Was the original "Biosphere 2" project a failure? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

What happened at the Biosphere's inaugural inhabitation in 1991 is the stuff of empirical legend. A group of scientists, four men and four women, were to seal themselves in for two years without any contact with the outside world, there to grow their own food, and live peacefully together as future pioneers in a harsh and alien (well, kind of alien) climate. Unfortunately, the outside world had to intervene a few times: to get rid of an ant invasion, to pump in oxygen, to tend to a health emergency or two, to bring in forgotten necessities like makeup. The scientific team managed to last out the term, but they were half-crazy and half-starved when Ed Bass and the US Marshals finally came and busted them out.
Margaret Blonder

Biosphere 2 was privately constructed in the late 1980s to discover if eight people could sustain themselves in a sealed, energy-rich environment. The first two-year mission began in September 1991 and was followed by a second, shorter mission in 1993-1994. Following these experiments, the owners of Biosphere 2 decided to change its mission and asked scientists at Columbia University to advise them as to what might be done. This advisory role led to an acceptance by Columbia, in 1996, of full responsibility for the conduct of research, education and public outreach activities on the site. The current management agreement with Columbia University extends through 2010.
Biosphere 2 Center

If the human race were to leave planet Earth and travel to the planets and beyond, surely it would need to be able to sustain life in a perhaps hostile environment. The science that deals with biospheres (i.e. portions of a planet where life exists) and thus the problems of colonizing the planets (including our own) is called biospherics. Conceptually, the Biosphere 2 project grew out of the need to know how life could be maintained in biospheres from the smallest (space capsules) to the largest (planets).

Biosphere 2 was designed to be an artificial environment complete with a desert, a rainforest, and an ocean, a miniature, albeit not perfect, version of the earth. This mini-Earth, the world's largest enclosed ecological life-support system, was financed by a Texas billionaire and cost approximately $200 Million, far more than any university or government would have been willing to spend. The first inhabitants (Biosphereans as they called themselves) entered the Biosphere 2 structure in September of 1991 as pioneers and emerged two years later hungry and depressed. Life inside the Biosphere wasn't as easy or as rosey as originally thought. A little over a year into their stay, the oxygen levels inside the structure dropped dramatically to about 14% rather than the nominal 21% found on Earth. There was not enough oxygen to sustain life. Oxygen from the outside had to be pumped in. Unfortunately this meant that the system was no longer closed; it had become an open system. What had originally excited me had overnight disappointed me.

That oxygen had to be pumped in, thus destroying the original concept of building and living in a closed system is enough for many to call Biosphere 2 a failure. That 19 of 25 introduced vertebrate species became extinct, that the ocean became too acidic, that air pollution was a problem as was temperature control only fuels the ridicule. As scientists though, we must keep in mind that much of the success of science is a result of its failures. Just because we don't get the results we were expecting doesn't mean we didn't learn something during the course of our experiment. The same holds true for the experiment called Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 was only a model of the earth at a very simplistic level. It was a controlled model attempting to test various hypotheses regarding the Earth's functioning. The simplicity undoubtedly escaped notice by the general public, which was expecting many more successful results. Expectations ran high and even though the project team learned much, the public perceived it as a failure.

After the first experiment ended in 1993, the Biosphere 2 project conducted a shorter experiment during 1993 and 1994. After the completion of the second experiment the owners decided to change directions and asked Columbia University for advice. Two years later Columbia University took over full responsibility for research, education and public outreach at the facility. Columbia's agreement extends through the year 2010. The university has also recently entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to "explore the use of Biosphere 2 as a national center for education, and earth system science and engineering, in areas crucial to the Energy Department's mission".

Ask Yourself These Questions
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Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Memories of the Biosphere
    Margaret Blonder gives a scathing overview of the Biosphere Project and its subsequent purchase by Columbia University. This site is the online extension of the print journal of philosophy and pop-culture, Hermenaut. A no holds barred website.
  • Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center
    Although there are research and educational section on their website, the Biosphere 2 Center's site reads more like that of a commercial site than one of an educational site. There is a hotel and convention center, a world-class restaurant, a visitor's center and an employment opportunities section.
  • A Historical Overview of the Biosphere 2 Project
    This is a paper written by the founder of Biosphere 2, John Allen, which gives a lot of background information particularly in regards to all of the formulation of the concept of the project.
  • The Biosphere 2 Project
    This is an excellent outline of the physical specifications of the Biosphere 2 system. German author and Biospherian, Bernd Zabel goes into great detail about the infrastructure of the buildings, from the kind of glass used in the dome to the water purification system. It's all here.
  • Biosphere 2 Redux
    This article describes some of the kinds of experiments that were done as well as describes improvements to the facility and the educational opportunities. This is probably one of the more neutral descriptions of the facility.
  • Biosphere 2
    Daniel Pemberton is a British writer and musician. He has written for magazines such as i-D, Esquire, The Idler, The Daily Telegraph, Wired, Composite Japan, GQ and The Wire on subjects ranging from the "Art of DJ-ing" to the "Biosphere". His article chronicles his visit to the Biosphere 2 Project.
  • Columbia's $200 Million Turtle Tank
    In his article for the conservative Dartmouth Review, Christopher Pearson opines, "The Biosphere failed not because of a grand philosophical flaw in its conception but because those who built it didn't know what the hell they were doing". While not necessarily making his case for failure, he does make the whole situation seem comical.
  • Class Under Glass
    The magazine simply known as "E" sponsors this website with "everything the budding environmentalist needs to know". This article describes the "new" Biosphere 2 project that includes Columbia University's "Earth Semester", a four-and-a-half month, 16-credit undergraduate program, open to students from across the United States. Almost makes me wish I was a student again!
  • Participant from Biosphere 2 Tells All in The New Hampshire
    Jayne Poynter was manager for agriculture and domestic animals for Biosphere 2. In 1997 she spoke at the University of New Hampshire and pronounced the Biosphere 2 project a success despite the Biosphereans inability to get along with each other. It is an interesting read.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003