Scaling Earth

After 30 years, the spirit of exploration that built Biosphere 2 continues, as scientists at the scaled-up laboratory investigate the nexus of food, water, and energy.

March 11, 2017

FeaturesIssue 23: March/April 2017

If you happen to find yourself on Mars, and you want a snack, you’re going to have limited options. You might think, following the plot of the “The Martian,” that you could eat a potato. Or maybe—you hope—astronaut ice cream. Probably your munchies will be limited to dense, high protein nougat that tastes like strawberry gravel or, if you’re lucky, a few leaves of Swiss chard.

Before we rocket off to Mars, though, there is plenty to concern ourselves as to what what we’re eating on this planet. That’s where Biosphere 2 comes in. Originally designed as something like a revolutionary alternate to Earth (or a simplified replicate), 25 years after the initial Biospherian mission, scientists on the Biosphere 2 campus, about 20 miles north of Tucson, are working on more practical problems, such as how to mitigate heat around solar farms, how to turn abiotic soil into a substrate that can grow plants, how rainforests will react to droughts, and how to grow leafy greens more efficiently.

LEO, the Landscape Evolution Observatory, is the world’s largest Earth Science laboratory experiment.

Biosphere 2 (B2) began as an ecotechnical dream—an exorbitantly expensive, private mega-experiment designed to push the collective imagination beyond the confines of Biosphere 1, otherwise known as Earth. The dream was dreamed by John Allen, latter-day hippy/Renaissance man who practiced adventure, communal living, ecoscience, and theater therapy. Allen and his crew, self-dubbed Synergians, were largely funded by Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass, who enabled the Synergians’ wild adventuring. Rebecca Reider, writing in her book about the project, Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities, explains, “Their enormous agreed-upon inner aim was … to grow as artists, scientists, and explorers; and by transforming themselves, to somehow transform the world.”

The Synergians’ most ambitious plan, dreamed up at an Institute of Ecotechnics conference in the mid-‘80s, was to design a self-sustaining, enclosed biome, a scaled up version of a terrarium (or vivarium) that could support life, including human life. Bankrolled by Bass, the Synergians bought land north of Tucson and broke ground on Biosphere 2 in January of 1987. John Allen described their mission as initiating “the first mitosis of Biosphere Planet Ocean.”

The 3.14-acre Biosphere 2 structure is located near Oracle, at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Then, after years of complicated bio-logistical study, in September of 1991, eight men and women sealed themselves inside Biosphere 2. The seal itself sparked controversy, given that the system was “energetically open”—that is, the giant glass bubble was powered and cooled with energy sucked from the grid, as well as gargantuan diesel and natural gas generators.

Of course, our planet is not a completely closed system. Earth, as Katie Morgan, B2’s current program coordinator for marine science education and outreach, reminded me, is “energetically open”—getting its power from outside our atmosphere (from the sun). And even if the science wasn’t perfect—only one of the eight biospherians had an advanced scientific degree—the goal was, basically, to replicate the nearly infinitely intricate life system of an entire planet, which, notably, includes human hubris, basic error, and plenty of drama. Whatever criticism was levied against them, there is no denying that the biospherians were ambitious, dedicated, profoundly creative, and that they inspired people around the world.

A graduate student works on a small section of the landscape-scale LEO experiment.

Not long after they closed the door behind them, however, they encountered a problem: they got hungry. The biospherians could only afford a single cup of coffee every other week, which came from beans they grew, harvested, dried, roasted, and ground themselves. That was the way all their food came—from toiling under the glass. Self-sufficiency was an integral part of the mission, but also one of its biggest challenges. They lost weight. And, along with diminishing oxygen levels, they became lethargic. They would later discover—a discovery with potentially crucial Biosphere 1 implications—that the newly poured concrete was absorbing a lot of their oxygen.

Their hope, as Reider explained, was that the conglomerate artificial ecosystem would “self-organize” and “find its own balance.” It didn’t quite. Oxygen needed to be pumped in. As the biospherians coped, the world ogled on.

In 1990, in just the first six months of the mission, “159,000 people—nearly 1,000 every day—took guided tours” around the perimeter, according to Reider. Despite hunger, low oxygen levels, and some intradome drama, the biospherians made it through their two years.

John Adams is B2’s deputy director, in charge of re-engineering the facility for new projects.

There was a second mission, run in part by Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News and currently chief strategist for President Donald Trump. But things went even more sour during the second run. Biosphere 2 was vandalized by two of the Mission 1 biospherians, and the experiment was aborted.

Since then, after a takeover from Columbia University and then a transfer to the University of Arizona in 2007, Biosphere 2 has become a giant, multimission lab and tourist destination—different from its original mission, but certainly in the same scientific and ethical spirit of exploration. John Adams, B2’s deputy director, is in charge of re-engineering the facility for new projects. Strolling with him along the B2 campus in early January, in stunning view of the snow-capped Catalina Mountains, he told me about an innovative project meant to keep solar panels cool: planting crops underneath them. UA researchers Greg Barron-Gafford and Gary Paul Nabhan are working together to design an agrovoltaic system in which the transpiration of harvestable plants, growing underneath solar panels, would keep the panels from overheating, which decreases their efficiency. Creating a small microgrid of solar panels for the B2 would also offset electrical expenses. Since UA’s takeover, B2’s electric bill has been cut in half, from over a million dollars a year. The practical effects are as important, Adams explained, as the efforts of outreach and education.

The current goal of Biosphere 2 is, basically, to explore. “It’s a scaling tool,” Adams said. B2 is an intermediate step between the laboratory, where experiments fit into test tubes, and the world, where variables are nearly impossible to control. There is some degree of natural variability under the dome, but, Adams explained, “We have ways to manipulate and perturb the system that we don’t have in the real world.”

Katie Morgan, the program coordinator for marine science education and outreach, takes a swim in B2’s ocean.

A prime example of Biosphere 2’s scaling potential is the LEO (Landscape Evolution Observatory) project, which is, according to B2’s website, the world’s largest Earth Science laboratory experiment. LEO is basically a giant tray (nearly 100 feet by 36 feet, and 3 feet deep) containing over a million pounds of crushed volcanic rock. The tray, angled like a ski slope, is peppered with 1,800 sensors, feeding data to scientists seeking to understand how abiotic (dead) soil slowly converts to a substrate that can support microbial and eventually vascular plant life. The object is to “infer how water resources and ecosystems in real landscapes may be impacted by ongoing and future climate change,” according to the B2 website.

The LEO project had a mitosis of its own, spawning the mini-LEO at Tucson’s Manzo Elementary School, where students, guided by B2 scientists, ran scaled down LEO replication experiments to test which plants would grow best in the full-scale project. “The science that they’re doing is real science,” Blue Baldwin, the ecology program coordinator at Manzo, told me, with the results directly impacting the decisions the B2 scientists are making. Because B2 scientists can only plant for the first time once, “there are high stakes as to which plants to add,” the UA’s Barron-Gafford told me, which is why crowd-sourcing out to schools was so helpful. Based on the school experiments, B2 scientists have narrowed their plant selections. The students “are learning first principles in biology and ecology,” Barron-Gafford said, “and we’re taking those numbers” directly into our experiment. Manzo is setting up for another B2 collaborative experiment, getting ready to plant crops underneath their solar panels and participate in the agrovoltaic study. B2 scientists are also working with Rincon and University high schools.

For as long as farmers have been farming, they’ve been challenged by insects, weather, droughts, and floods. Not having enough space will pose a new challenge. Snacking on Mars is a fun thought experiment, but for 10 billion people (the estimated population by 2050, 80 percent of whom will live in cities), eating healthfully on Earth is the more pressing concern. According to Adams, the acreage it takes to grow enough crops to feed Earth’s 7 billion people is about the size of South America. To feed 10 billion people using current agricultural practices, we’d have to add the equivalent of the landmass of Brazil, which is about as large as the contiguous United States. One possible solution, being explored at Biosphere 2, is to go vertical: start stacking farms on top of each other.

Adams and I sauntered into Biosphere 2’s echoic west lung, which will soon be turned into a vertical farm, research lab, and education space. The lung, like a giant dome, is a hollow snickerdoodle-shaped structure crowned with a steel plate instead of a chocolate kiss. The steel plate rises or sinks, along with a flexible ceiling, to relieve or maintain air pressure inside B2. Since the space, these days, is no longer sealed, pressure can rise and fall through cracked windows (or doors opened to let scientists and tourists stream through) and the lungs have largely become vestigial organs.

The Lunar Greenhouse is part of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC). Basically, it’s a prototype for growing food on Mars.

The vertical farm project is a public/private initiative run by Biosphere 2 and the Chicago-based Civic Farms. “We’re technological famers,” Paul Hardej, CEO of Civic Farms, said: farmers who are inventing “food solutions.” Together with B2, Civic Farms plans to start producing leafy greens using LED lights and water-efficient technology, hoping to sell crops in Whole Foods stores in both Phoenix and Tucson. One of the many benefits of vertical farming is the control that the farmer-scientists have in almost every step of the growing process—a control much in the spirit of the initial idea behind the B2. Farmer-scientists can manipulate, Adams explained, the specific wavelength of the LEDs to enhance different parts of the growing cycle, or tailor the light to the mood of different crops. Hardej expects to be able to harvest about 400,000 pounds of leafy greens a year in the west lung.

The Lunar Greenhouse, an encapsulated minifarm, grows food, recycles and purifies water through plant transpiration, and produces oxygen.

Though outside energy sources are needed to run the vertical farm, there are other benefits that make up for the energy used. “You have to look at the entire carbon footprint of the food system,” Hardej said, taking into account factors such as how far a product travels before landing on your plate. One head of lettuce, on average, travels about 1,500 miles in the United States before it’s consumed. Other benefits of vertical farming include increased water efficiency, with zero farm run-off (one of the principle pollutants in our oceans), the almost complete absence of pests (hence, the absence of pesticides), and the fact that vertical farming is not affected by weather (extreme weather being one of many challenges brought on by climate change). Compared to a head of lettuce grown on a traditional farm, vertical farms conserve 98 percent more water.

After 30 years, the goal of Biosphere 2 is to explore. “It’s a scaling tool,” says deputy director John Adams.

“The idea,” Hardej told me, “is to grow where people live.” When those B2-grown baby greens finally hit the shelves in Tucson and Phoenix, look for a unique package. Civic Farms has developed Grow Tray Units (GTUs) in which the greens are not only grown, but are packaged and sold. Customers can continue to grow their own greens, “harvesting” only what they need for their salad. The cultivation and packaging setup theoretically cuts down on waste and extends shelf life.

Ian Frazier described vertical farming recently in the New Yorker: “Each plant grows at the pinnacle of a trembling heap of tightly focused and hypersensitive data.” But what is it about the lung, I asked Adams, or even about B2 itself, that makes for a good vertical farm?

In one sense, Adams admitted, nothing. The vertical farm could be built in a warehouse in South Tucson. However there are about 100,000 visitors that come to Biosphere 2 every year, and diverting them, for a moment, from marveling at the rainforest in the desert, will be an invaluable teaching tool. Hardej laid out the educational components of the Civic Farms-B2 collaboration: They plan to teach visitors about water and energy conservation and food security, and run an industry training program for vertical farm growers and design professionals.

100,000 visitors pass through Biosphere 2 every year, including this group walking on a boardwalk through the desert biome.

Education is exactly the role of the aquaponic system already in place in Biosphere 2—a mostly closed system growing fish and vegetables—which you could build in your own backyard. Morgan explained how some visitors are inspired enough by what they see to build their own aquaponic systems. Improving efficiency of solar panel usage could make B2 more economically sustainable, which could make it a more attractive investment site for future experiments that would indeed take advantage of its distinctive capacities. “The Biosphere 2 is a magnifying glass,” Adams said, giving scientists and visitors alike a new view not only of individually controlled variables, but also of entire real and imagined systems.

Food, water, and energy, Adams reminded me, are not separate issues, but together form a life-supporting nexus. That’s another reason why it makes sense to keep Biosphere 2 as a working laboratory: multiple and diverse experiments can happen next to each other, rather than in isolated labs.

The Lunar Greenhouse, part of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) is another boundary-pushing project associated with Biosphere 2, and intertwined with the vertical farm project. Gene Giacomelli, principal technical investigator with UA’s Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering, has been running the NASA-funded experiment since 2009. Basically, Giacomelli is the one figuring out how to grow veggies on Mars. He runs the project at the research site on the corner of Roger and Campbell, in Tucson, but has a prototype in B2, and hopes to expand research on site. Like other projects at B2, the location is a draw. The Lunar Greenhouse looks “spacey,” as Giacomelli described it to me, which is a good educational hook for visitors.

Supported by captured desert sunlight, plants grow to the edge of the B2 terrarium.

The fully closed Lunar Greenhouse is what is known as a Bioregenerative Life Support System. The encapsulated minifarm doesn’t only grow basil and lettuce, but also recycles and purifies water through plant transpiration, and produces oxygen. The farther into space humans go, Giacomelli explained, the more difficult it will be to follow the “picnic basket approach,” or sending along the food, water, and oxygen needed for the foray in a rocket-propelled “picnic basket.” If we ever get to Mars, or beyond, we’re going to need to grow some of our own food (Iike potatoes or Swiss chard). Doubling the size of the B2 prototype would expand its capacity to provide one person for half of their needed calories for a year. They’d need protein nougat—or something like it—for the other half.

CEAC isn’t just about learning how to shuttle off Earth, “parachuting to another planet” when this one is in distress, Adams told me, but how to “fine-tune and predict models here.” Giacomelli and his team will continue working with Civic Farms, trading research and ideas, hoping to build more sustainable food production models for Earth, and beyond.

“The Biosphere 2 project has showed us how little we understand Earth’s systems,” Adams told me while we were gazing into Biosphere 2’s Lunar Greenhouse. As we continue to experience the effects of climate change, and try to meet the challenges of a rising global population, B2 could be used as a research space to better predict and respond to continued changes and needs in Biosphere 1. Civic Farms and Biosphere 2’s vertical farm project exemplifies the overlap in space/terrestrial technology. It turns out that dreaming up snack food on Mars could help us eat healthier on Earth. ✜

John Washington is a writer and translator. Visit or find him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.

Visitors enter Biosphere 2 through a door that hasn’t been sealed in more than 25 years.

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