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Remember the Arizona Biosphere? What happened?

Author: Gen Z - Andy Velazquez from Plano, Illinois is currently in his third year at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee School of Architecture.

Biosphere 2, the airtight, three-acre, $150-million futuristic mini-world facility near the aptly named town of Oracle, Arizona was both a success and a failure. The structure looks like a futuristic spaceship that just crashed in the middle of the desert. Especially at the time it was created, it must have been a crazy looking phenomenon to the average person.

This mini replica of Earth was designed to be a true self-sustaining structure that could sustain all aspects of life. The debate over whether it was a success, or a failure is still ongoing today. Some people argue that because of the errors that occurred, as well as the inability to be completely self-sustaining, it was a failure and a waste of millions of dollars. However, there are others who claim it was a successful experiment that helped scientists better understand Earth’s environment and what necessary steps need to be taken to save the suffering planet. In the eyes of an everyday person, it most likely seemed that Biosphere 2 was a successful experiment and achieved the overarching goal of spreading awareness about Earth’s climate.

Several things went wrong with Biosphere 2 while the scientists were living in it. Recreating the earth and its ecosystems seemed like a near impossible task, especially since the mindset was to make it self-sustainable. Some people from the Nice Try Utopian podcast considered that overall, Biosphere "sucked" and "failed at all its goals". The water systems became polluted with too many nutrients, the level of dinitrogen oxide became too high and most of the animal species went extinct.

There were about 3,000 plant and animal species placed in the project at the beginning of the two-year experiment. They anticipated that some species would not survive, but the eventual extinction rate was much higher than expected. Almost all the insect species died out, including those whose purpose was to pollinate the plants which could no longer propagate themselves.

At the same time, some species absolutely thrived in this man-made environment. Crazy ants, cockroaches, and katydids ran rampant, while certain vines threatened to choke out every other kind of plant. Since most of those species went extinct, it appeared that the man-made environment could not sustain a balanced ecosystem and therefore failed to fulfill its goals. Not only did Biosphere not sustain a balanced ecosystem, but also left the scientists at risk when oxygen levels began to mysteriously drop at dangerous rates.

According to Walker and Carroll from What Went Wrong, the project initially hoped that the system was stabilizing itself, but as time passed it became increasingly clear the something was amiss. At the 18-month mark, oxygen levels dropped to the point where the crew could barely function. So, the outside managers decided to pump oxygen into the system allowing the crew to finish off the two years. Evidence of all these failures demonstrated that Biosphere could not properly maintain life on its own.

While the experiment itself failed in several ways, over the two years a lot was learned about how to properly take care of Earth’s environment. According to Bill Dempster, the project’s engineering systems director, it was a tremendous success. He pointed out that hundreds of papers were written about it promoting awareness about biospheres. Before Biosphere was even thought of, discussions about establishing humanity and artificial habitats on other planets were taking place among scientists. These discussions had fueled the idea of Biosphere 2.

Mark Nelson was one of the crew members who spent the two years in Biosphere 2 and had firsthand experience. After it was all said and done, he felt as if what they learned from the project went underappreciated and did not get the media coverage it deserved. “Overwrought media coverage led people to think the experiment failed. But a million visitors came to peer into Biosphere 2, and millions more followed us in news accounts.” He also believed that they proved that a sealed ecosystem could work for years. They also learned how to keep stressed reefs alive, how to protect rainforests, how to keep CO2 levels low and how to run a very effective farm without the toxic chemicals. Experiments are simply made to test ideas and even though the experiment did have failures, valuable knowledge was learned and could be passed on to other scientists to help better Earth’s environment and stop climate change.

While the intended experiment itself may have failed, overall Biosphere 2 was a successful project. It brought awareness about climates, proper maintenance of ecosystems, the reduction CO2 levels, proper farm techniques, and much more. If the media coverage had done a better job at publicizing all the information to the public, our environment could be in a better place right now. The climate and ecosystems are suffering from the carelessness of humanity. Without more effort to reverse this degradation, we stand little chance of sustaining life in the years to come.


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