By Julie Gant | Wanderer and Co-Creator at The Wandering Gants
Tour a Live Science Experiment – Biosphere 2
Did you ever watch that goofy 90’s movie, Biodome, starring Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin? You know. The one where they get trapped in a live science experiment for a year?
Well, guess what. That biodome is real. It’s actually called Biosphere 2 and I’m going to take you on a walk-through tour plus give you the answer to their most-asked question. But first…
A Brief History
Biosphere 2 started construction in 1986 and the first live experiment started in 1991 to research and develop way for people live self-sustainably in space. These tests also helped us learn more about our ecology here on Earth. This first undertaking was a two-year operation that locked eight scientists inside.
They had to survive by growing and raising their own food, providing their own water, maintaining their sanity, and handling their own medical issues all while performing the required experiments and tests. Imagine being stuck in one place for two years with just seven other people. Just dealing with the mental and emotional aspects must have been a challenge.
Many other experiments have been run since that initial science experiment, and still are, though they haven’t done a ‘lock down’ operation since the one in 1994. In fact, we weren’t able to walk through part of the rainforest area because they were running a closed live experiment at the time. Most of the research these days is about our own planet, figuring out ways we can help with climate change and other ecological issues.
Tickets and Checking In
You can buy your tickets online or at the entrance/gift shop area. We went on a Sunday in December and there were still available tickets. Keep in mind that the online tickets are for the day with no time set. You check-in for a particular tour time once you arrive; so, you may want to arrive about 30 to 45 minutes beforehand if you want to do a particular tour.
If you’re a rock geek like me, the first thing you’ll notice after walking into the gift shop is the huge quartz crystal in the middle of the room. Seriously, I think it’s like 3 1/2 feet high! The sign said it came from Arkansas; I’m not sure why it was there, but it sure was cool to see.
Don’t worry if you don’t have enough time to explore the gift shop before your tour(s). You go back through it on your way out, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to check it all out. There’s also a small cafe in case you need something to drink or eat. Speaking of drinks, the only thing they allow inside the tour area is plain water in plastic bottles; so don’t plan to bring your flavored drinks or tea or whatever inside.
They do have ADA tours. One of the people in our party wasn’t going to be up to walking the entire tour, so I called ahead. I was warned that the ADA tour is much shorter and you don’t get to go through all the habitats or the lung. We ended up having that person join us for the beginning of the tour until we moved away from the first habitat area. She had on the headphones and was able to listen to the guide until we moved too far away, then one of the awesome staff took her to the end of the tour where she could look around at the final habitat. She ended up heading to the cafe, then just sitting outside in the nice winter sunshine until we were done. Considering the entire tour is about 45 minutes, she didn’t have to wait long and none of us felt guilty. If you have someone who has limited walking capabilities, I’d call ahead to see what the best options are for you. The staff on the phone and in the tour were extremely helpful and kind.
You walk outside between low adobe-style buildings made for meeting rooms or visitors staying on site until it opens up to a straight on view of the Rainforest’s dome. It’s the iconic building that you see in most articles and social media. Look closely. Realize that all the color inside it is living rainforest plants and trees literally smashed up against the windows. It’s so full that you can’t see more than a foot or so inside in most places.
From there, you walk down stairs to the compound and the rest of the compound comes into view. Breathtaking! At this point, I was literally vibrating with excitement. Hang a right and continue toward the entrance. There’ll be signs and you will have been given a map when you buy your tickets.
Stepping through the entrance to Biosphere 2 was a long-time dream come true. One thing I realized quickly was that even though it doesn’t seem huge from the outside, it does seem larger than life from the inside. It’s sort of like a TARDIS.
While you’re waiting for the tour to start, you can check out the small exhibit they have just inside the entrance. I recommend heading down from the gift shop at least 15 to 20 minutes before your tour is supposed to start so you have time to read everything.
They start off by getting you set up with headphones so you can hear the guide even if you’re not close to them. Then you watch a short movie about Biosphere 2’s history and answer any questions your group might have. They also tell you the most-asked question, which I’ll have for you at the end of our tour.
From there, you enter the ecological habitats area. The rainforest was closed during our tour due to a live experiment that ended a few weeks later. I was sorry to have missed that part of the tour, but the rest was all just as cool. We started in the Ocean habitat where they have a tank that holds 2.6 million liters of water. The Ocean was originally used to study coral acidification as a simulated Caribbean reef, was let go for a while, and is now being revitalized to further study effects of human and environmental factors on coral.
Walking through the Savannah, they have a section roped off where they have a permaculture setup. Here, they’re growing vegetables and herbs in an aquaponics system where the water is fertilized by fish, cleaned up by the plants’ roots, then recycled back to the fish. It’s awesome! How do I set up something like that in my RV?
We move quickly through the remaining Thornscrub, Marsh, and Desert areas. See those funky trees in the background? They’re called Boojum and, while they do have them in the Tucson area, this desert landscape was modeled after a South American desert.
Our next steps took us underneath the habitats into the inner workings of Biopshere 2. Here they told us about how the water is reused and recycled, how the temperature is modified to suit specific tests, and how they make it rain. This is all controlled by technicians in a building outside of the main compound. They didn’t call them gods, but that’s where my brain went and I had a little inside giggle thinking about it.
We walked through a short tunnel into the South Lung. This is super cool! I’m not an engineer by any means, but the solution to pressure build-up from the sun shining through all those windows up top was impressive. The moving portion of the lungs are made of rubber, which allows them to expand and contract as needed.
Leaving the South Lung, we walked through the airlock to the outside. (Oh! Probably best that you don’t wear a skirt – or kilt, whatever – on this tour. Or wear shorts underneath. The airlocks do a little Marilyn Monroe trick on you.)
Outside, our guide talked to us a little about LEO – the Landscape Evolution Observatory, which “is the world’s largest laboratory experiment in the interdisciplinary Earth sciences.” It currently contains over 1 million pounds of crushed basalt with more than 1800 sensors and sampling devices. Crazy! The tests being run in LEO are helping scientists to better understand how climate change impacts arid landscapes.
The Human Habitat
After the LEO discussion, our guide pointed us in the direction of the Human Habitat and told us we could tour that on our own (there was another guide there to answer questions) and head back up to the gift shop whenever we wanted.
The Human Habitat. The words make me laugh. It evokes visuals from certain sci-fi/distopian movies of humans in enclosures for apes or aliens or future-peoples to see and observe. And then I realize that’s exactly what this is. The scientists who stayed in Biosphere 2 during those first sealed experiments were absolutely being observed and tested. Thank goodness it was voluntary!
You walk in to their kitchen and dining area. Yes! You get to sit at the very same dining table and chairs the original scientists ate at. I asked to be sure it was the original. And, yes, I was geeking out a little – maybe a lot. A short trip upstairs leads you to their suites – consisting of a downstairs living space with upstairs bedroom. One for each of the 8 original scientists, so they could have some alone time when they needed it.
In the same area, there’s a small marine lab and an exhibit showing how Biosphere 2 has helped, and is still helping, space research for exploration and colonization.
And that ends our tour. Really, even if you’re not a huge science geek but just like to explore and learn, touring Biosphere 2 is a can’t miss experience outside of Tucson. Put it on your list and enjoy!
The #1 Question
Here it is! The question asked most often? According to our tour guide, it’s “Where’s Biosphere 1?” Biosphere 1 is Earth. The original scientists wanted to honor the original biosphere that supports our lives, so they labeled the one they built as #2. Nice.