Biosphere 2: A Glorious Debacle

biosphere

Hey, remember Biosphere 2?

It was a huge deal back in 1991 when eight volunteers, four men and four women, were sealed inside a complex in the Arizona desert…

The idea was to create a self-contained world, completely sealed off from the elements, with a number of habitats for plants and animals.

The Biospherians would grow their own food, generate their own oxygen, and replicate the conditions that made life possible on “Biosphere 1″ – aka Earth. Some even thought it was a model for human habitation of Mars and other planets.

But as my homie MC Schmole recently related, the experiment quickly devolved into chaotic infighting and a desperate struggle for survival.

It’s an epic tale of hubris, blind passion and sweet, sweet schadenfreude.

As the New York Times reported at the outset, spirits were high as the eight volunteer researchers were sealed in to start the experiment:

The hummingbirds, galago monkeys, earthworms and 3,800 other species of animals and plants were already sealed inside, hunting, flowering, feeding, reproducing.

This morning, four men and four women joined them in a giant airtight greenhouse and pulled the door shut behind them, thus inaugurating a flamboyant $150 million experiment in ecological correctness that is controversial in some scientific circles.

For the next two years, if this self-contained miniature world succeeds in living and breathing on its own, the eight researchers will be as cut off from the Arizona desert that surrounds them as if they were in a spaceship.

Only sunlight, externally generated electricity and electronic communications will be allowed to enter the 3.15-acre glass-and-steel enclosure known as Biosphere 2, the second installment of Biosphere 1, the researchers’ name for the earth.

“You’re going to have to drag me out in two years,” cried Jane Poynter, a 29-year-old ecologist, just before she entered, capturing the optimism and enthusiasm of the participants in this venture, which some scientists have dismissed as a “scientific crapshoot.”


[...]

In this spirit, the first item on the researchers’ schedule today, their last day in Biosphere 1, was a 4 A.M. makeup session before appearing on all the networks’ morning talk shows, for which they were dressed in their dark blue Star Trek-style uniforms.

Still wearing their pancake makeup four hours later, they were accompanied to the door of their new home by two American Indians in full feather, who had earlier joined a Tibetan Buddhist monk in a sunrise prayer for their success.

In emotional speeches about their project before the researchers passed through the double doors, they and their patrons invoked evolution, American know-how, Noah, Galileo, da Vinci and the Wright brothers.

“We are going into another space,” said one of the researchers, Mark Nelson, 44. “We are going into another time.”

Mr. Nelson runs a London-based ecological study center that is financed by Edward P. Bass of the multibillion-dollar Texas oil family, who is also the major sponsor of the Arizona project.

Mr. Nelson recalled the words of a Hopi Indian sage who had taught him: “Obey the rhythm of life.”

After this earthy crunchy nonsense concluded, they were finally ready to start the experiment.

And O, how the shit hit the fan.

There’s an awesome web page hosted by the University of Edinburgh that tells of all that went awry…

Simply put, the Biosphere turned into a disaster because the structure itself had significant technical flaws…

…because the idea that eight volunteer researchers could get along in a confined space making decisions according to consensus was completely unrealistic, one might say idiotic…

…because the researchers were not scientists, except for one medical doctor, and did a completely amateurish job at preserving habitats, recording data and performing experiments…

..and because the habitats were completely overwhelmed by a pestilence of ants and other malefactors.

When it was all over, the formerly-enthusiastic Jane Poynter was desperate to get out of there and back to the comforts of good old Biosphere 1.

Let’s take a look at these one by one, because the failure of Biosphere 2 really is fascinating.

TECHNICAL WOES

The short version: oxygen levels plunged immediately and continued to drop until they were no longer high enough to sustain life.

As Jane Poynter wrote in her tell-all, “The Human Experiment,” the Biospherians quickly realized to their horror that they were all going to suffocate in there.

I heard a soft knock on my door.

Taber MacCallum walked in and plonked himself down on the sofa. Taber, a veritable bear of a young man only a few months earlier, was now as thin as a rail. Thick brown hair spilled over a prominent brow, under which shone penetrating green eyes. He was attractive, but it was his mind that fascinated me, allured me. The son of an American astrophysicist, he was exceptionally intelligent, thoughtful, and kind.

Taber was my best friend and my lover. I could read him like an open book, and this evening he seemed unusually tense.

“Hi, what’s up?” I inquired.

There was a long silence. Finally he broke the quiet. “I’m getting some strange readings in the lab.”

“What, the nitrogen generator giving you problems again?” I asked.

“No, it looks like we may be losing oxygen.”

[...]

He ran the samples over and over, and the data were unyielding. Only 17.4 percent of our atmosphere was oxygen. This was a significant drop, a horrifying drop, the more so since it was inexplicable.

It meant that our life support system was truly failing. We were about a quarter of the way through our two-year mission and we could have lost about 15 percent of our oxygen. A little more and we’d be in the same situation as mountaineers above fourteen thousand feet—they begin to fall apart mentally and physically if they do not adapt or breathe bottled oxygen.

At the current rate, our atmosphere would be only 10 percent oxygen before the end of the two-year mission: no one could live on so little.

[...]

And what of the precious “self-organizing” notion we all shared whereby the Biosphere—its overall air, water, life, and chemistry—would seek its own equilibrium and, importantly, an equilibrium that would be habitable by humans. Well, it was self-organizing, all right—organizing us right out of the picture.

We sat stunned into silence. The news was far worse than we had imagined.

I felt a rush as the blood drained from my head down to my feet, and my toes and fingers tingled with adrenaline. My brain was spinning and I heard a voice screaming at me in my head:

“We’re screwed! We’re screwed!”

The original idea was that the vast plant life in Biosphere 2 would consume all the carbon dioxide produced by the crew and their animals, and replenish the atmosphere with oxygen.

But as a webpage hosted by Kenyon College notes, they overlooked two crucial elements that depleted both oxygen and carbon dioxide:

Starting when the crew members were first sealed in, Biosphere II experienced a constant and puzzling decline in the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere. It was initially hoped that the system was merely stabilizing itself, but as time passed it became increasingly clear the something was amiss. Not quite 18 months into the experiment, when oxygen levels dropped to the point where the crew could barely function, the outside managers decided to pump oxygen into the system so they could complete the full two years as planned.

Obviously, Biosphere II was not self-sustaining if outside oxygen had to be added in order for the crew to survive. The reasons behind this flaw in the project were not fully understood until some time later. As it turned out, the problem had more to do with carbon dioxide than with oxygen. Biosphere II’s soil, especially in the rain forest and savanna areas, is unusually rich in organic material. Microbes were metabolizing this material at an abnormally high rate, in the process of which they used up a lot of oxygen and produced a lot of carbon dioxide. The plants in Biosphere II should have been able to use this excess carbon dioxide to replace the oxygen through photosynthesis, except that another chemical reaction was also taking place.

A vast majority of Biosphere II was built out of concrete, which contains calcium hydroxide. Instead of being consumed by the plants to produce more oxygen, the excess carbon dioxide was reacting with calcium hydroxide in the concrete walls to form calcium carbonate and water.

Ca(OH)2 + CO2 –> CaCO3 + H2O

This hypothesis was confirmed when scientists tested the walls and found that they contained about ten times the amount of calcium carbonate on the inner surfaces as they did on the outer surfaces.

So the geniuses of Biosphere 2 built a structure that ate carbon dioxide before the plants could convert it into oxygen.

Then they had to cheat and add oxygen from Biosphere 1.

Next stop, Mars!

The technical flaws in the Biosphere’s design soon created personal dramas that overwhelmed the project…

CREW DYNAMICS

Jane Poynter did an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon in which she explained how a rift in the crew set the Biospherians against each other.

It was “Team Science” against “Team Survival.”

SIMON: I have to get you to talk about some of the interpersonal relationships. And I’m even going to introduce the word frictions.

Ms. POYNTER: Well, that’s very PC of you. I think it was jolly well more than friction. You know, it was most unfortunate because six months into the mission we broke into two factions. And the most heartbreaking thing for me about that was that two people on the other side of the divide were my best friends when I went into Biosphere II. And it turns out that these factions are very common in small groups in isolation. There’s now a whole branch of psychology called isolated confined environment psychology, of all things. You know, they study people, like in the Antarctic, or when they go into space, and it turns out that this bifurcation of small groups is just something that happens.

SIMON: Why were there two different factions? Did you have substantial disagreements about what was going on there or interpersonal, or was it all a little hard to understand now?

Ms. POYNTER: No, in fact, what I thought then is really what I think now, which is that we broke over a rather traditional kind of break. It was sort of management versus science, if you will.

And when things started going wrong, like we did have a problem with oxygen levels and we weren’t growing enough food, you know, some of felt, you know, let’s bring in some food so that we can actually do more science.

And the other side was saying, no, you’re not going to bring in food, basically saying, you know, this is a survival mission. And so – no, I just really felt, as did the other folks on my side of the divide, that we were behaving incredibly unprofessionally in some ways.

The other faction, who were all about surviving in the biosphere, even as scientific pursuits went to crap,  included Abigail Alling, aka “Gaia” and Mark van Thillo, aka “Laser.”

Alling later dissed the Poynter posse in some catty interview comments:

I loved living inside BIO2 and was, in fact, reluctant to come out! Others inside during the two years really toyed with the idea of coming out and expressed unhappiness from time to time. I think this comes down to that some people are adventurers and some are not. I am.

SCIENTIFIC SHORTCOMINGS

The Kenyon College wrapup comes down hard on the lack of scientific cred among the crew, and compares it unfavorably with the space program:

I suggest that things went wrong because of a lack of proper planning. Forget about Biosphere 2 for a minute, and think instead about the international (though mainly American) space programme. How are astronauts selected, and what are their roles? It is no coincidence that astronauts are middle-aged people, with families and a nice home to go back to. They also are extremely fit, highly trained to do the technical jobs, and (ugh!) have impeccable psychological profiles. The last thing you want on a spacecraft is a “loose cannon” – someone who is unpredictable. What’s more, each crew member has specific roles to play, but all the decisions are taken in Mission Control, not by debate among the astronauts themselves. There is an immense team of experts monitoring and directing every aspect of the mission, and the astronauts are, by and large, functionaries rather than decision-makers.

Contrast this with Biosphere 2. The biospherians were self-selected enthusiasts, committed to environmental ideals. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the problems were many:

  • These people were not selected and highly trained for specific roles;
  • They were allowed to make their own decisions by consensus (which is OK when things are going well, but not so good when the stresses become overbearing)
  • There was no external scientific oversight – no-one to advise or turn to when things did not work.

The biospherians did not even keep proper records, so that at the end of one of the biggest environmental experiments of all time there was nothing to show for the time and money!

(To be fair, at least one NASA astronaut has proven to be a complete nut job…cough cough, Lisa Nowak…)


Biospherians party!

After the first two-year experiment was over, billionaire founder Ed Bass commissioned a Smithsonian Institution study of its results. Their findings were scathing:

Among the criticisms mentioned in this report were:

  • The “lack of a well-developed, written scientific plan”
  • An “ad hoc mix of scientific initiatives of varying quality”
  • An “overconcern with proprietary information which has impeded the flow of scientific information and interaction”, and
  • “Possible embellishments of data”.

This report recommended that a Scientific Director be appointed to oversee the development of the Biosphere 2 programme, and that the Biosphere 2 managers begin publishing and discussing their work more openly.

In fact, there was only one trained scientist among the original 8-member crew – Professor Walford, who was a trained physician and served as the crew’s doctor. It is astonishing to think that such a major project should be undertaken by a crew of people who, despite their undoubted enthusiasm, were not trained scientists and who, apparently, did not keep proper scientific records.

Later, when Bass tried to retake control of the project from the enviro-junkies who were running it into the ground, “Gaia” and “Laser” rebelled!

They decided to break into the biosphere in an attempt to release the second crew of Biospherians from the wicked grip of a competent management team, but soon discovered that none of them wanted to leave.

This rash reaction, more than anything else I’ve read, seems to demonstrate that people who call themselves “Gaia” and “Laser” should never be placed in charge of a multi-million-dollar scientific experiment. Ever.

BIOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

The Biospherians had envisioned a fully-functioning ecosystem under their bio-dome, with plants, animals and humans all coexisting in happy harmony.

That isn’t exactly how it played out.

The biosphere inhabitants soon found that they could not generate enough food to sustain themselves. They had brought in various seeds (peanuts, maize, vegetables, etc. – even coffee) which would be sown to produce crops (and which would generate more seeds for subsequent seasons). These annual crops were grown in rotation in 18 separate plots in the agroforestry zone. They included rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, sweet potato, potatoes, beans, soybeans, rape, mustard, safflower, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, eggplant (aubergine), peppers and leafy vegetables.

But the biospherians were not experienced agronomists, and they had many problems with insect pests and plant diseases because they had to rely on natural (biological) control practices rather than chemical pest control measures, and the biological control methods did not always work well.

As their food crisis deepened, the biospherians decided to eat some of the stores of seeds they had brought in, which were intended to be used to produce more food. At quite an early stage they found that bananas were one of the easiest and most nutritious food sources that they could use (in the rainforest zone) so they allowed the bananas to proliferate naturally (from rhizomes), and bananas now dominate that zone.

The initial intention was that chickens would be used as a continuing source of eggs, but the biospherians could not afford to use the limited amounts of food to feed the chickens, so these were slaughtered and eaten. The pigs also were in competition with the food demands of the humans. So, the pigs were slaughtered and eaten.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the team accidentally sealed “crazy ants” inside the Biosphere, and they reproduced rapidly, overwhelming the ecosystem.

In summation – these people had no clue what they were doing, and they utterly blew it.

When the end of the two-year experiment finally came around, Jane Poynter didn’t have to be dragged out. She was ready to kick down the door.

Eight o’ clock in the morning on September 26, 1993. I stood in my prickly blue jumpsuit with the other seven inmates of the Bubble, as some of us liked to call it. We waited for the radio announcement that it was time to walk through the double-doored airlock, that the mission was finally over. I would like to say that I was pondering heady thoughts about the future of mankind, but all I could think of was how much I wished that dear Jane Goodall would shut up.

I have the deepest respect for my fellow countrywoman who has dedicated her life to the study and conservation of chimpanzees, taught us that apes use tools and laugh, too, and caused us to redefine what it is that makes us human. But as Jane gave the keynote speech leading to our re-entry into the world, into what we called Biosphere 1, the minutes ticked by with agonizing slowness.

“Come on, people,” I muttered to myself. “I signed up for two years—not two years and one minute, or two minutes. Only two years.”

Eight ten. “Jane, let us apes out of the cage!”

Biosphere 2 is now under the control of the University of Arizona, where it is used as a tool to discuss global warming.

As the book “Catastrophes in Nature and Society” points out, the Biosphere experiment didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, but at least it proved SOMETHING:

The Biosphere 2 experiment has been recognized to generally be a failure in the sense that it has never achieved the expected self-running sustainable system to offer a favorable or at least suitable human habitat…Nevertheless, the Biosphere 2 experiment was especially important for having proved something different than what was originally meant.

Namely, it demonstrated all the fault of hoping for self-organization of natural processes and neglecting the intellectual efforts, as is typical of the “Green” thinking.

The moral of the story is this: being a super de-duper Earth lover is not enough. If you want to build a self sustaining biosphere, you need to have the scientific chops to match.

Otherwise, you’ll end up gasping for breath and referring to yourself as “Laser.”

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