I’ve always had this odd dream of communal living. Me and my best friends living as neighbors with a shared building for hanging out. It wasn’t that crazy the more I thought about it. I realized it was just a youthful extension of me and my neighborhood friends hanging out in our tree fort. Now the idea of living together with 7 strangers for two years in a building just of 3 acres in size, that’s crazy and one of the reasons we wanted to visit Biosphere 2.
The Biosphere 2 was a privately funded experiment to see if humans could truly live in a closed environment for a year. Now in science we learn about open, closed and isolated systems. Open systems allow energy and matter to move freely while a closed system traps all matter, preventing it from moving. This is what Biosphere 2 did. All water, air and dirt was contained within the building with the energy of the sun powering the system. Isolated systems exist in theory, but we also learn in science that energy is difficult to contain and moves from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration (2nd law of thermodynamics).
This experiment is intriguing because humans have always dreamed of travelling among the stars and to do this, we will have to create closed systems that sustain people for months, even years. In 1988 John Allen, an entrepreneur who funded the project began with the Biosphere Test Module experiment as a proof of concept. Using this foundation project he constructed the much larger biosphere 2. This massive structure cost over 200 million dollars to build and maintain and took four years to build. While it seems large at 1.3 hectares or about 13,000 sq. ft. per person inside, it’s not that big when you consider it has to support all your food and oxygen production.
In science class we talk about sustainability and ecological footprint. This always leads to a project where kids calculate how much land they require to sustain their life and standard of living. Biosphere 2 covered an area that was roughly 1.3 hectare or 0.16 per person. This footprint is equal to some of the poorest counties in the world. In this experiment eight people maintained one of the highest yielding farms, more than five times as efficient as those poor counties like Bangladesh and were barely able to survive. We felt this was great example to teach about our continual need to learn and discover about sustainability if we are to thrive on Biosphere 1 or Earth (and why they called their project Biosphere 2).
While controversy exists over how you define the success of the project, the participants did tremendous work in our understanding about living together in isolation, biome changes in small closed systems and human survival. If humans are to ever make that next big step in exploration, such as a Mars or Moon colony, we can be sure that experiments like Biosphere 2 will be needed to help us leap rather than stumble forward.