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Into the Biosphere – lessons from one of science’s most audacious experiments

  • Written by  Mark Nelson
  • Published in Deserts
Into the Biosphere – lessons from one of science’s most audacious experiments
04 Sep
Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in biospheric science. 25 years later, one of the original team members looks back on the project and examines its legacy

Mark Nelson will be presenting a series of talks and lectures on the experiences of life in Biosphere 2 and how we can apply the lessons learnt to our wider ecosphere:

September 10 – Kew Science Seminar. 1PM at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with Sir Ghillean Prance (places limited)

September 11 – 12.30PM at The Linnean Society of London with Sir Ghillean Prance
September 13 – Eden Project, Cornwall
September 18 – 6.30PM talk at the October Gallery, London

Click on any of the events above for more details and to book tickets

Astronauts experience the ‘Overview Effect’ seeing Earth from space. I was fortunate to explore the ‘Innerview Effect’ as a member of the biospherian crew for the 1991 to 1993 closure experiment in Biosphere 2. This expedition in another world, with all its emotional highs and lows, has deeply shaped my vision of the human relationship with our global biosphere (Biosphere 1).

I graduated university in 1968 when the ‘environmental movement’ was brand new. Awareness was growing of the unforeseen consequences of modern technologies, the vast population increase and our collective impacts on the Earth. I wanted something different than a conventional career, to take on the challenge of developing innovative approaches to living. I wanted more than Kerouac’s On the Road – I wanted to explore new terrain, ‘off the road.’ I had no idea 20 years of work on the ecological frontiers with my small Institute of Ecotechnics would eventually lead me through the airlock into Biosphere 2. We coined the term ‘ecotechnics’ to denote a harmonisation of the worlds of eco and techno.

Biosphere 2 was ambitious, some thought we were 50 years ahead of our time. We had to learn to become the natives of a new techno-living synthesis, the world’s first laboratory for studying the global ecological processes. There was no operating manual for our experiment in biospherics.

The endeavour had multiple goals: advancing the science of biospherics, developing eco-technologies, public education and as an early base-line experiment for systems needed for long-term habitation outside Earth’s biosphere.

The original ‘Biospherians’ – Mark Nelson front leftThe original ‘Biospherians’ – Mark Nelson front left

We hoped Biosphere 2 would fire public imagination, so our architects designed a spectacular structure. The facility covered about one hectare with roofs as high as 23m and included a wilderness wing with rainforest, savannah, fog desert, mangrove/marsh and a coral reef ocean. The other wing housed the intensive farm and farm animals, workshops, laboratories and the human living area. We became headline news around the world. Millions made the pilgrimage to come see Biosphere 2; a billion followed the experiment even though the internet was years in the future. The project’s legacy of biospheric education is profound. When we started, even the word ‘biosphere’ was little used. Seeing our mini biosphere it was easier for people to understand the human relationship with the world of life.

Biosphere 2 revolutionised the field of experimental ecology, a far-reaching experiment in ecological self-organisation. The crew of ‘biospherians’ had to keep the machinery going, tend the farm, collect data and conduct research and intervene in the wilderness biomes defending biodiversity. A new role for us humans – keystone predators in service to the life inside. It was a great ecotechnic laboratory and challenge.

Our wilderness biomes thrived, trees grew from small seedlings to towering size. We had packed the biomic areas with many species since it was unknown how many would be lost. The crew controlled invasive species and the biomes maintained high biodiversity the biomes despite being rather small. The desert changed from the system originally designed, a fog desert, to a more chaparral ecosystem. Its ecological self-organisation showed us how it best adapted to the environment inside Biosphere 2.

Inventive environmental engineering helped the young biomes develop with their own character, not becoming one urban weed-dominated system, nor the algae-infested soup some had predicted. Though we learned more from the unexpected, such as the oxygen disappearance, it was remarkable how well the engineering and life systems meshed and worked as planned. Our engineers had to learn ecology and our ecologists, engineering. What would happen if we did that everywhere?

Our farm was extremely productive without using anything that might pollute water, air, soil or food. It went beyond organic; we recycled all our nutrients back to the soils. Given the enormous role of industrial farming in climate change, air and water pollution, Biosphere 2’s farming system offers support to the movement for ‘ecological intensification’ and nutrient retention using more natural approaches, rebuilding healthy soils able to store more carbon.

Biosphere 2 contained its own farm and gardensBiosphere 2 contained its own farm and gardens

Unchecked rise of CO2 could have ended our experiment. So, the crew became atmospheric managers, like we need to be with our global biosphere. We planted more ‘green allies’ to harvest sunfall, pruned vegetation so it quickly regrew, sequestered carbon and made sure our wilderness systems thrived. We succeeded, to everyone’s surprise, including our own! CO2 peaked each winter but remained at levels which posed no human health threat.

Elevated CO2 endangered our tiny coral reef ocean. We had to buffer its water to limit acidification and even weed algae from corals to prevent shading. No one thought it could be done, this was the world’s largest man-made coral reef and the only one at 3,900 feet (1km) elevation! Later studies of Biosphere 2’s coral reef ocean would be landmarks in alerting us to the dangers global warming and ocean acidification pose.

Oxygen was perhaps the greatest surprise, the missing element. After sixteen months, we’d dropped from 20.9 per cent to 14.2 per cent, the equivalent of over 14,000 feet (4.3km) elevation. Microbial respiration from our organically-enriched soils exceeded photosynthesis. That CO2 was being largely absorbed by unsealed concrete inside, taking the oxygen with it. The first law of ecology is everything is connected to everything. The missing oxygen revealed that in a closed biosphere every element of the ‘technosphere’ (the realm which includes all human technological activity) was also connected! Earth is a far tighter sealed system than Biosphere 2, though with large buffers its cycles are far longer. The necessity of redesigning our technosphere to prevent it harming our global life support system is a major lesson of our experience.

When we pumped in extra oxygen, I experienced one of the most dramatic physiologic revivals of my life – underlining that we normally take oxygen for granted. We laughed, we ran (for the first time in months), we filled our lungs deeply. Suddenly we realised how much our biosphere provides – without it, we would literally perish. For all the crew, our metabolic connection with and dependence on our living world became visceral, deeply felt in the body, not just a mental concept. It’s deeply joyful to bond with rather than feel alienated from an ‘environment’ that somehow is outside of us. Every breath, every drink, every bite reminded us we were part of the metabolism of this world.

Other parts of the facility included an indoor rainforest and mini coral reefOther parts of the facility included an indoor rainforest and mini coral reef

The tender loving care with which we treated our living world grew out of understanding our connection and dependence. That our health depended on our biosphere’s health was an ever-present reality. It was unthinkable to harm our literal ‘life-boat’ so we worked together as a team no matter our interpersonal problems. We also loved Biosphere 2 – she was our baby. We were both growing up and transforming together. Two years inside Biosphere 2 profoundly changed every one of us. We all feel a duty to share our insights to repay the amazing gift we had in being the world’s first biospherians.

We are all biospherians and must start with a new biospheric paradigm to integrate ourselves and our technologies. Falling in love with Earth’s biosphere will also motivate us to fight to defend it.

Like in Biosphere 2, where the tight sealing and accelerated cycling times left us no choice: we have to redesign our technosphere so that it serves and doesn’t harm, pollute and poison life. There was no ‘away’ in Biosphere 2 – and we’ve come to realise that’s equally true on Earth. Our biosphere is a vast recycling apparatus. And we are a part of it. Now we as a species have to learn how to become responsible participants of our biosphere, to come of age in our new Anthropocene.

The outmoded and false mythology of humans being uniquely ‘above nature’ is giving way to a new appreciation of our responsibility to our fellow species. On our beautiful and intricately connected ‘Spaceship Earth’, we must make it work for everyone. Buckminster Fuller reminded us: ‘It has to be everybody or nobody.’

Reconnecting with the natural world, greening our cities, will make us healthier and happier. In Biosphere 2, we enjoyed a verdant world with wilderness analogues from rainforest to desert, from marsh/mangrove to coral reef ocean. We worked diligently to protect those systems. From our unique vantage point inside, we watched with horror the unceasing attack on the world’s richness. Reconnecting, becoming conscious of our role as biospherians is urgently needed. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations.

Biosphere 2 demonstrated a number of important lessons for improving our relationship with Earth’s biosphere: the technosphere can be redesigned to support life without harming it; new roles for humans as atmospheric stewards and defenders of biodiversity; innovative bio-technologies to recycle wastewater and purify air; high-yield regenerative agriculture without use of chemicals; the importance of preserving natural biomes and putting limits on farming conversion; methods of restoring damaged ecosystems; shared dependence on the biosphere overrides group tensions and subgroups. The experiment’s surprises underscored how much is still unknown about biospheres. Even more reason to follow the precautionary principle about doing anything which might damage Earth’s biosphere.

Today the Biosphere facility is owned and run by the University of Arizona and used for scientific experimentsToday the Biosphere facility is owned and run by the University of Arizona and is still used to conduct scientific experiments

The fact that Biosphere 2 caught the world’s imagination speaks to the project’s message of optimism and the latent desire of people to reconnect and forge a new relationship with our planetary biosphere.

Now we face the great test of responding to a biospheric emergency. We need a massive aid program to help developing countries adopt renewable energies and to continue their rapid rise in developed countries which produce the most greenhouse gases. We need artists and writers to forge new mythologies and works of art to celebrate humanity’s creative role in our biosphere. We need technologists, engineers and chemists to create a new infrastructure that supports human and biospheric health. The widespread changes of consciousness reflected in mindfulness, the spread of Eastern religions and renewal of a spiritual outlook which respects the Earth as sacred, the rethinking that humans must become stewards of ourselves, that the Earth is not ours to despoil, all point to a positive future.

We are coming to appreciate that we’re all in same boat, and it’s our lifeboat. In Biosphere 2, we could see every action, however small, makes a difference.

Dr Mark Nelson is one of the founding director of the Institute of Ecotechnics. His new book describing his life in Biosphere 2, Pushing Our Limits, is out now from UA Press, priced £21.95. Click here to order from Amazon.

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