March 2, 2107 Thursday – Biosphere 2, Oracle, AZ, USA
2017 Southern Arizona & Astronomy
I pack my bags and check out from the hotel around 11:30AM, since I leave Tucson this evening aboard the Amtrak train Sunset Limited back to Los Angeles and onward to Seattle. Since I have the whole day, I head north on N Oracle Road to the Biosphere 2 located in Oracle, AZ – about a half hour drive. The admission is US$20, but I qualify for a senior discount, so it costs me $18. This includes a hour and a quarter walking tour of the Biosphere.
Biosphere 2 was built from private funding, although it is now owned and operated by the University of Arizona. The first experiment demonstrated the viability of a closed ecological system supporting and maintaining human life in outer space by shutting eight humans inside the Biosphere for two years. They have unique large-scale experimental apparatus housing seven model ecosystems with some active research by teams of multidisciplinary scientists. The tour showcases the tropical orchard, desert, ocean, and tropical rainforest. Our guide tells us the rainforest is pretty overgrown, and the desert still needs a project. The scientific focus appears to be Water and Climate. There are also lots of school kids taking special educational programs.
I have to say after listening to our tour guide and seeing the facility for myself, it strikes me as kind of an odd facility. It is a long way from being sustainable, since it uses huge amounts of energy from the electrical grid to maintain and alter the various internal climatic systems. Of course this can be enormously valuable to scientists who want to see effects of climate change, since the climate can be altered inside in a matter of hours, and can be maintained precisely for days or weeks at a time. Our guide candidly admitted that the University of Arizona is still in the process of moving the facility from the idealism it was built for to a more scientifically relevant footing.
Biosphere 2 is an engineering marvel. The ecosystems are precisely maintained inside a sealed environment – airtight doors are the only way in and out. The Lungs allow the atmosphere inside to expand and contract without caving in or exploding the enclosing glass and metal structures. Of course, those airtight doors were closed for the first two years during the original experiment involving humans!
After the tour, I stop into the B2 Cafe for some lunch before returning to the parking lot and heading south to Tucson to take my train to Los Angeles, and (eventually) home.