Biosphere 2 | Environment Monitoring System

Biosphere 2 is an American Earth Science Experiment or research facility situated in Oracle, Arizona. Scientist built this three-acre closed ecosystem replication of our earth. The design received the name Biosphere 2 as Biosphere 1 would be earth itself. It was, and still remains, the world’s largest Earth system science experimental research facility ever created.

The original construction of the biodome was a $150 million dollar project. It was funded through a 50/50 joint venture called Space Biospheres Ventures (SBV) by two private donors. Biosphere 2 is futuristic-looking giant glass building with cylindrical edges feels like a sci-fi film set.

Will Apples Grow on Mars?

Originally constructed in 1987, the Biosphere 2 project was designed to explore the possibility of man creating closed biospheric systems that replicate Earth’s ecosystem to inhabit other planets. In 1991 the first Biosphere 2

The 3.14-acre space was structured into a closed artificial ecosystem, also known as a vivarium. The ecosystem to keep plants, raise animals or any living into an artificial surrounding.

The ecosystem was supposed to allow scientists and researchers to study and experiment ecosystem adaptation and space farming. The researchers would be able to test theories without harming the earth’s own ecosystem.

Biosphere 2 at Sunset. Photo credit: Katja Schulz

There were only two closed-system experiments performed at Biosphere 2, both of them short-lived. The first experiment ran from 1991 to 1993 and the second experiment ran from March to September 1994. During the second experiment, in June 1994, Space Biosphere Ventures was dissolved, leaving the operations in complete limbo.

Management was not the only problem that the experiments ran into, however. Both attempts had serious problems with low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of both plants and animals as well as problems within the resident crew.

Jane Poynter and the Human Experiment

One the Biospherians from the first experiment, Jane Poynter, documented her time in the in the Biosphere 2 experiment in her book The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2.

In her book, she describes how the crew coped with enduring never-ending hunger, severely low levels of oxygen, and extremely difficult relationships, during the experiment. She has also given various talks on the subject, amongst them a popular Ted Talk:

Experiment Turned Research Station

In 2007, the University of Arizona took over the management of Biosphere 2 from Columbia University which ran it from 1996 to 2003. Currently, the research facility has 7 biome sections. including:

  • 1,900 square meter rainforest,
  • 850 square meter ocean with a coral reef,
  • 1,300 square meter savannah grassland,
  • 1,400 square meter fog desert,
  • 450 square meter mangrove wetlands,
  • 2,500 square meter agriculture system

There is also a human habitat which includes living quarters, laboratories and workshops. An underground infrastructure provides heating and cooling systems as well as generating electricity powered from natural gas energy system.

Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO)

Currently, one of the most interesting researches being run at Biosphere 2 is the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO). The project is the world’s largest laboratory experiment in the interdisciplinary Earth sciences. The experiment consists of three artificial landscapes contained within elaborate steel structures and located inside three adjacent bays within Biosphere 2.

The environment of these three landscapes is closely monitored by an array of more than 1800 sensors and sampling devices that are installed on various locations within the environment. 

Each bay contains the following set of electrical sensors:

  • 496 Decagon 5TM soil water content and temperature sensors
  • 496 Decagon MPS2 soil water potential and temperature sensors
  • 48 Vaisala CARBOCAP GMM220 carbon dioxide concentration probes
  • 12 pairs of Hukseflux HPF-1 and HPF-1SC measuring surface heat flux
  • 12 TCAV averaging thermocouple
  • 120 custom electrical resistivity tomography probes
  • 15 Campbell CS451 pressure transducers
  • 10 Honeywell Model 3130 load cells
  • 6 Seametrics PE102 magflow meters
  • 6 NovaLynx tipping buckets (monitoring drainage)
  • 24 Campbell (Vaisala) HMP60 temperature & relative humidity probes
  • 24 Apogee SQ-110 photon flux probes
  • 24 Davis Instruments DVI7911 cup anemometer and wind vane
  • 2 KippZonen CNR4 net radiometer
  • 1 Campbell Scientific CSAT3 3D anemometer

Each bay contains the following set of physical samplers:

  • 496 soil Prenart SuperQuartz water samplers
  • 141 custom PTFE soil gas samplers
  • 24 custom atmospheric gas samplers

According to the University of Arizona publication, “the sensors enable monitoring of water, carbon, and energy cycling processes, and the physical and chemical evolution of the landscape at sub-meter to whole-landscape scales.  As the soil, topography, and biological communities evolve to increasingly complex states, scientists will be able to document how those changes affect water, carbon, and energy cycling within the landscape, and between the landscape and the atmosphere.”

The sensors and environment monitoring research being performed at LEO aims to advance our understanding of how climate change may impact water resources and ecosystems in arid environments.

Just a Big Greenhouse?

There are obvious advantages of experiments within a controlled environment, such as the biomes of Biosphere 2. Nonetheless, there are drawbacks. Andrew Peterson, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, points out that:

  • The construction’s building’s glass windows cut the available sunlight by nearly half
  • There is no way to simulate storms with high winds or damaging downpours.
  • The Biosphere cannot re-create all the plant or soil complexities of a Brazilian rain forest or the Sonoran Desert, although it can approximate them.
  • The humidity inside is considerably higher than that outside which can be a problem for research in the desert biome.

These problems have led to questions of whether the Biosphere researchers are following the best scientific path. “The Biosphere is inherently a large greenhouse,” says William Schlesinger, dean of Duke University’s School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. “It’s useful for some kinds of science, but they have problems with replication [of experiments] because there is only one of them.”

Despite these observations, the two closure experiments performed the Biosphere set world records in fields such as closed ecological systems, agricultural production, health improvements with the high nutrient and low caloric diet the crew followed. Furthermore, research conducted through observations and environment monitoring within the facilities throughout the years has led to insights into the self-organization of complex biomic systems and atmospheric dynamics.

Read more on Project Sensor:

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