With many of us living under ‘lockdown’ and stuck in our homes due to the Coronavirus, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live in isolation for a long period.
The nearest I’ve come to that experience was a trip to Biosphere 2 near Tucson, Arizona which wins the prize for ‘weirdest place I’ve visited’ on my travels.
Biosphere 2 is most famous for a futuristic eco-experiment which took place 30 years ago when eight scientists were sent to live together, cut off from the outside world for two years. They were joined on their mission by 3,800 animals species.
It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi novel or an experiment on the International Space Station. What could possibly go wrong? And what can we learn from it today during the lockdown?
“Planet in a Bottle”
Visiting Biosphere 2 is a strange experience. Plonked down in the middle of the Sonora Desert and overlooked by the Santa Catalina Mountains, it’s a strange sight with its white domes and glass pyramids.
Once inside, there’s a definite sense of being on another planet – a bit like our own – but clearly we’re arrived in another parallel world. I found it fascinating, if a little surreal and futuristic.
It’s hard to imagine how the eight ‘guinea pig’ scientists lived this place for two years without going completely stir crazy. Their story has echoes of being stuck in TV’s “The Big Brother House”, but for a much longer period of time.
Biosphere 2 was designed to test whether humans could thrive in a closed environment which replicated ecosystems on Earth. The dream was that it might show us if humans could live on Mars.
It was the brainchild of Edward Bass, an architect, and John Allen, a charismatic New Age visionary. Their goal was to discover how the Earth could cope with the collapse of its ecosystems. Today it sounds like a response to climate change, but back in the early 1990s Biosphere 2 was seen as far-fetched. The media nicknamed it “the planet in a bottle.”
It cost £100 million and this ‘mini-me’ Earth was not without its critics.
Its detractors accused it of being a science theme park devised by deluded “New Age visionaries”. But some also praised its courage and vision, dubbing it the most important science project since the Moon landing.
“It was an extraordinarily audacious idea,” says Jane Poynter, one of the guinea-pig humans. “We were attempting to take this biosphere that evolved on a planetary scale and reduce it in size and complexity so we could understand more about our planet”.
Meet the ‘Biospherians’
Stepping inside Biosphere 2 is like entering a time warp… it’s hard to imagine how the pioneering “Biospherians”, as they were called, would have felt. Two years in solitary confinement is a huge challenge.
At least I knew that I’d be allowed to leave at the end of the hour-long visit. Looking inside the living quarters where the guinea-pig scientists lived was particularly strange. It must have been like living inside a prison cell, but a little larger and more luxurious. Not a place for anyone with claustrophobia.
I would have struggled with the lack of ‘fresh air’ and the lack of warm sunshine on my skin. Growing my own food would have been a challenge too!
Walking around Biosphere 2’s habitats is confusing. One minute you’re in a tropical rain forest, the next you’re walking through a cool climate grassland. These constructed environments feel unreal because you know that they are a construct – and there’s a roof over your head.
The first Biospherians comprised a team of four men and four women. Their adventure started when they entered Biosphere 2 on September 26, 1991 wearing jumpsuits which made them look like astronauts.
But this was a very different experience to being in space.
Once inside, they experienced life in the Biosphere’s constructed habitats which included a coral reef, mangrove marsh, mini-Amazonian rain forest, savannah grassland, and a fog desert. There was also a “human habitat” with living quarters, offices and recreational spaces.
Walking around the habitats today is a dizzying experience. It wasn’t long before my head started to ache and I had a woozy feeling.
The original scientists had a much tougher job – to work out how to manage living in isolation and living in a synthesised environment. I’m sure their mission to discover what might help save the planet drove them to carry on for the full two years.
Living in a Locked-Down Environment
What was it like living in Biosphere 2?
The Biospherians lived in a hermetically sealed environment with no chance of going outdoors. It was a bit like a lockdown. They was no escaping Biosphere 2’s walls.
Its domes contained agricultural systems which produced 83% of the crew’s diet, including crops of bananas, sweet potatoes, rice, and wheat. No chemicals could be used on the crops.
Everything was recycled, wherever possible. This was groundbreaking at the time (the early 1990s) when there was not as much recycling as there is today.
There were success stories but there were also problems – many of the issues came down to basic human behaviour. Group dynamics were pushed to their very limits.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before there was friction between the inmates. Stress levels went through the roof as crops failed, oxygen levels fell and carbon-dioxide levels rose to a potentially dangerous levels, leaving the scientists exhausted and gasping for air.
One of the Biosphere 2 domes became overrun by ants and cockroaches whilst many of its animal populations collapsed including its community of honey bees and hummingbirds.
Jane Poynter, one of the Biospherians has described the experience: “Basically, we suffocated, starved and went mad”. Given that most of the scientific team were ambitious and driven personalities, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they fell out.
Previously, they’d been on a year-long training programme, living in the Australian outback with Aborigines, an early version of TV’s “Get Me Out of Here”. But even this couldn’t prepare the scientists for human failings and personality clashes.
The calorie-restricted diet and lack of oxygen didn’t help with morale. The daughter of one Biospherian recalls visiting her mother and looking through the glass to greet her. Zodiac Maslin-Hahn remembers that: “It was like visiting someone in prison”.
Ultimately, the Biospherians split into two factions and even started hoarding stolen food. Everyone started to squabble and fall out. Close friends become implacable enemies.
Sound familiar? Desperate times require desperate alliances and ‘tribes’, perhaps? The survival of the fittest?
Clearly, the psychological impact of living in confinement had been underestimated. The scientists or ‘bio-nauts’, as I like to call them, were literally ‘climbing the walls’ and going stir crazy.
‘Test Tube Earth’
The psychology of living in a “confined environment” hadn’t been thought through fully… and there were fears that the experiment would implode due to growing tensions.
Amazingly, despite the arguments and personal feuds, the Biosphere 2 crew got through the challenge. They still had to work together in order to survive – and achieve the project’s goals. One of the team later said: “I don’t like some of them, but we were a hell of a team… we co-operated totally”.
Perhaps surprisingly, the human guinea-pigs managed to get through two years of isolation from the outside world. A remarkable achievement.
The scientific team finally emerged in 1993. Two of them got married shortly after getting out – a bizarre and unexpected legacy.
Jane Poynter tells her story of living two years and 20 minutes in Biosphere 2 and looks at how we might sustain life in the harshest of environments.
The Second Coming
What is perhaps most surprising is that a second team of scientists went to live in the Biosphere just six months after the original team escaped to freedom!
This new seven-person team lived in Biosphere 2 for just six months, between March and September of 1994, largely in an attempt to rehabilitate the project’s credibility.
They were able to become completely self-sufficient in food production but they experienced the same issues as the earlier team, and fractured into warring factions.
In a bizarre twist, two members of the original scientific crew – Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo – broke into the compound as a protest against the Biosphere’s management. They were arrested for opening the Biosphere 2’s sealed enclosure to let in outside air.
Bisopherian Abigail Alling later said that she “considered the Biosphere to be in an emergency state… in no way was it sabotage”. Restraining orders, tighter security, court cases and recriminations followed.
You couldn’t make it up…
Eventually, the managing company, Space Biosphere Ventures, was disbanded. Biosphere 2 was literally left in ‘no man’s land’… its future became uncertain.
Eventually Columbia University took the Biosphere 2 in 1996, hoping it would attract top researchers. And then Arizona University took over the research facilities in 2007 and it still works from Biosphere 2 today.
Saving Planet Earth
Biosphere 2’s story is so remarkable that I’m surprised that nobody has made a Hollywood movie about it. But a documentary called “Spaceship Earth” is due for release later this year.
What was the legacy of Biosphere 2?
Despite the problems and nasty arguments, there were successes The Biosphere 2’s coral reef allowed scientists to understand and quantify the harmful effect of carbon dioxide on coral growth for the first time… and its research into the future of the planet has had positive spin-offs.
Biosphere 2’s credibility has improved in the scientific world and it’s proved to be an important research base for thousands of students.
There were two lessons learned from the Biosphere 2 project for our planet (Biosphere 1). The first is that there’s a fragile relationship between humans and their environment. The other is that human relationships are complicated and fragile too!
The future of the planet is a huge concern today and the Biosphere was one of the first to acknowledge that challenge with a visionary project.
The Biosphere 2 was like planet Earth in miniature but the spaces inside were small and confined so it’s no surprise that arguments flared up.
Co-founder and ecopreneur Edward Bass still believes in his original vision and says Biosphere 2 is more relevant than ever. Its lunar greenhouse, for example, is trying to understand how to grow vegetables on the Moon or Mars.
Today’s tourists visit the Biosphere 2’s experimental ‘laboratory’ and marvel that a group of people could live and survive on planet Biosphere 2 for more than a few weeks.
The closest I’ve come to seeing anything similar is the Eden Project in the UK. Although Biosphere 2 was an influence, Eden seems much less like a world born out of science fiction. And it hasn’t persuaded a team of scientists to isolate inside its domes – yet!
Perhaps trying to emulate life in the future is tougher than we think. In today’s climate we’re all discovering that it’s harder to isolate ourselves than we imagined… at a time when the challenges facing our planet are greater than ever.
The future just got weirder and more unpredictable but that shouldn’t stop us learning how to fix it… or come up with new visionary solutions.
You can read more about the Biosphere 2 experiment in this fascinating Huffington Post article