ORACLE, Ariz.—Opening the door to a glass pyramid, a visitor steps from the arid heat of Arizona into a coastal fog desert that stretches toward a savanna. A Lilliputian ocean laps against a rocky shore. A passageway leads to a steamy rain forest where vine-necklaced trees tower 90 feet high. Here in Biosphere 2, the world’s largest controlled environment dedicated to climate research, scientists can tinker with scaled-down ecosystems by switching off sprinklers and cranking up the thermostat to learn about the effects of global warming out in the real world.
The facility has long been shadowed by its ill-fated 1991 maiden mission to establish an analogue of a self-sustaining colony on another planet. But after some retooling and successful, high-profile studies—including one that revealed warming oceans are killing corals—the giant terrarium (led by the University of Arizona since 2011) is finally living up to its potential as a site for novel and risky research.
In its half-acre rain forest, scientists are probing how tropical ecosystems might weather late-21st-century heat and drought. Soon researchers hope to experiment with radical coral reef restoration methods in the enclosure’s million-gallon ocean. And in March 2022 the operation will unveil a Mars analogue that reprises the original founders’ dream of mimicking a plant-filled habitat on a lifeless alien world. Biosphere 2 is effectively like a time machine that can preview a climate-altered Earth “by changing the concentrations of gases in the atmosphere to those that we think are going to exist in the future to see how the planet could fare,” says the facility’s current director Joaquin Ruiz.
Biosphere 2 launched 30 years ago, on September 26, 1991, when a crew of eight—including a physician, botanist and marine biologist—began a two-year residency inside this 3.14-acre terrarium. The structure, a prototype for an extraterrestrial habitat, was conceived by a counterculture theater troupe that partnered with businesspeople to form a company called Space Biosphere Ventures. It was intended to be a hermetically sealed ecosystem where several biomes, 3,000 species of plants and animals, and a farm would provide the “biospherians” with all the air, water and food they needed. “At the time, a lot of scientists said it literally could not be done, that the whole thing was going to turn into green slime,” says Jane Poynter, one of the original biospherians and founder of spaceflight company Space Perspective.
Biosphere 2 contains a mini ocean next to a savanna and a mangrove forest. Credit: Alamy
The enclosure did not ooze slime. But after a year, the oxygen had dwindled to dangerously low levels, the farm was not producing enough crops—and the crew was suffocating and hangry. To solve the problem, some members of Space Biosphere Ventures’ management team pumped oxygen into the building and used a CO2 “scrubber” without disclosing their actions publicly. When the truth emerged, the mission lost credibility with scientists and was panned by the press. Some still consider this unfair. “It was absurd that the media portrayed it as a failure, because it completely missed the point that it was an experiment,” Poynter says, adding that the goal was to discover what problems arise in a human-made biosphere and to learn from those dilemmas. The failure, say several of Biosphere 2’s current staff, lay in the lack of transparency—not the lack of oxygen.
Scientists did, in fact, learn something important from what went wrong: the soil was too rich in organic matter, and its thriving bacteria gobbled up too much oxygen. At first, the researchers could not track down the excess carbon dioxide those microbes should have released as a byproduct of that oxygen consumption. Eventually they found it had chemically bonded with concrete in the building. “It was a light bulb moment,” says John Adams, Biosphere 2’s current deputy director. “They could trace, molecule by molecule, where [carbon] was going and where it was being stored in ways that they couldn’t outside” in the real world.
When Columbia University took over Biosphere 2 from 1996 to 2003, researchers realized that, inside this controlled mini world, they could tweak the CO2, heat and precipitation to predicted future levels and could measure the effects on varied biomes. “Quite a few people thought that this is an exquisite tool because you have a complicated system that you can completely close and risk damaging and learn how stressed systems behave,” says Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, who is not affiliated with Biosphere 2. “The challenge is: you have to make sure it’s actually reflecting a real system. I think one can walk that walk, and some of that [research] is being done now.”
Understanding the Future
Christiane Werner, an ecosystem physiologist at Germany’s University of Freiburg, used the facility’s rain forest to investigate how tropical plants and soil share nutrients to protect each other from climate change—and what happens when those support systems fail. Several recent studies have shown that deforestation and climate-related tree death are transforming rain forests such as the Amazon from carbon storage spaces into massive greenhouse gas emitters. Werner’s goal is to find what causes these tipping points. Doing so could help researchers make better climate predictions and develop more effective reforestation techniques.
Werner’s team released traceable forms of carbon and hydrogen into the glass-domed rain forest, then turned off the sprinklers to induce a 9.5-week “drought” and tracked where the elements traveled. “That has never been done before,” she says, “and Biosphere 2 is the one place on Earth where you can do such an experiment because you have a fully grown forest you can manipulate.” In the Amazon, it would of course have been impossible to conjure a two-month dry spell, and the chemical tracers could have escaped anywhere, she notes.
The soon to be published results are being kept under wraps, but Werner says the main takeaway was the diverse ways various plant species coped with the stress. “Because they have different functional responses, it buffers the whole forest,” she explains, adding that biodiversity is therefore key to keeping forests stable in turbulent climatic times.
Other experimental results from Biosphere 2’s rain forest have been heartening. In a 2020 study published in Nature Plants, Michigan State University ecologist Marielle Smith and her colleagues dialed up the temperature and found that the tropical flora were more resilient to high heat than many had anticipated.
At the facility’s mini ocean, researchers are partnering with microbial sciences company Seed Health to dose corals with probiotics to see if this can deter bleaching (which occurs when heat-stressed corals expel the symbiotic algae that help feed them). The scientists are also developing a program to experiment with “super corals” that are bioengineered to be resistant to heat and acidity. “If you’re in Miami or Hawaii, you can’t get permits to do that research because there’s a fear that genetically modified corals will get into nature,” says Chris Langdon, a University of Miami marine biologist who is on Biosphere 2’s science advisory committee. “With Biosphere 2 being in the middle of the desert, there would be absolutely no risk if anything escaped.”
Langdon is no stranger to Biosphere 2’s ocean. In the 1990s he conducted research there, revealing for the first time that ocean acidification causes corals to dissolve from a lack of calcium. He says the giant tank would also be a good place to test a leading idea to achieve negative carbon emissions: raising the ocean’s pH by adding dissolved rocks, giving the water a greater capacity to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Not all of Biosphere 2’s projects focus on climate. Its so-called Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM), currently under construction, “is very much, at a scientific level and even a philosophical level, similar to the original Biosphere,” says SAM director Kai Staats. Unlike other space analogues around the world, SAM will be a hermetically sealed habitat. Its primary purpose will be to discover how to transition from mechanical methods of generating breathable air to a self-sustaining system where plants, fungi and people produce a precise balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Visiting researchers will hydroponically grow fruits and vegetables in SAM’s greenhouse, which is painted and tinted to block the sun and mimic the dimmer daylight on Mars. They will also experiment with transforming regolith (crushed rocks that resemble lifeless Martian basalt) into fertile soil. This could have implications for reviving some of Earth’s degraded terrains.
And in light of the precarious status of Earth’s climate, Staats hopes the scientists who live in SAM will experience the kind of epiphany he says was described to him by Linda Leigh, one of the original biospherians. “She said that, in such a closed environment, you can’t help but be aware of every breath you take, every drink of water you consume and every morsel of food you eat because it doesn’t go someplace where you never see it again,” he says. “It comes right back to you.”
In 1991, a group of eight people entered a giant dome, a closed-system biosphere intended to be self-supporting. They called themselves “Biospherians,” wore space-age jumpsuits, and planned to stay two years, growing their own crops, recycling waste and air, and performing an “experiment” to see if it would be possible for human life to be sustained in such an environment. The structure was called Biosphere 2 (because Biosphere 1 is Earth), and it was a huge media sensation.
If you remember the media coverage of Biosphere 2 — or the 1996 Pauly Shore movie Biodome, which is (very) loosely based on the experiment — then you might remember the Biosphere 2 “experiment” as having flopped due to the interpersonal conflicts and scientific controversies that inevitably arose. At its conclusion, the project was mostly painted by media coverage as a farce and a failure.
But if you don’t remember it, and even if you do, the real story as captured in Spaceship Earth is fascinating, both much stranger and oddly more inspirational than the media reports from the time and people’s hazy memories might recall. The project was part of a long string of commercial ventures from a sort-of commune of inventors and forward thinkers that started in the 1970s, a group that called themselves “Synergists.” And the eventual end of Biosphere 2 involved a twist nobody could have seen coming.
Documentarian Matt Wolf decided to explore the Biosphere 2 project by backing way up and beginning with the Synergists, delving into their archives and talking to the members of the group and the Biospherians — most of whom are still alive — about what really went on. It’s a weird, surprising, and even hopeful tale of how groups of people can band together and actually effect change, even when that change looks mystifying from the outside.
I talked to Wolf by phone about the resulting film, Spaceship Earth, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is opening on digital platforms and through virtual theatrical engagements on May 8. We discussed the odd contours of the story and what he hopes it will bring to people who watch it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you first started making this film, what did you think the story would be about?
Going into it, I obviously thought that the film would be about Biosphere 2. And then, as soon as I started reaching out to the people who were involved with the project, I came to understand that the pre-history of the project was pretty fascinating. The unconventional group who had conceived of the project, the so-called Synergists, had a fascinating history beyond that, as well as a one-of-a-kind archive. They recognized that what they were doing was of historical significance, so they began filming as early as the 1960s. In fact, the story of Biosphere 2 is actually a half-century epic involving their journey as a small group trying to literally reimagine the world.
As I started to get a sense of the scope of the material, this unfamiliar story about this group of outliers, I recognized that I wanted to follow their journey and to tell their story. Their work found its greatest expression in Biosphere 2 — but it was rebuked.
That’s what literally happened, but I also felt like there was a deeper tale here — something that transcends the Synergists. There’s something here about idealism, about movements, about people who try to make the world a better place despite outside forces.
That’s a really important thread. There’s a history of back-to-the-land counterculturalists who get involved in cyber cultures — it’s, in some sense, the history of neoliberalism. This group, though, wasn’t hippies; they were capitalists. They were interested in ecologically minded enterprises, and they forged an unlikely partnership with Texas oil scion Ed Bass.
So, I think the idea that one could combine business enterprise and ecology for endeavors that are both ecologically sustainable and economically sustainable was definitely a product of its time. But that became the downfall of the project. And it proved to be impossible to accommodate the vision of Biosphere 2 with the short-term profit-maximization reality of capitalism. There are limitations to operating on a huge scale because of the practical implications of that. To me, it’s both an inspiring story about human achievement and cautionary about the limitations of that as well.
Biospherians in the Biosphere. Neon
I was young enough in the early ’90s that I don’t remember this happening.
So at every turn, I thought, “Wow, what is going to happen next?” I kept expecting things to go wrong, or for there to be a giant twist, and it bucked my expectations every time.
Right? When we were making the film, we were like, “Is it a problem that there’s not really any problems or conflict for the first hour of the film? Everything just seems to be going their way. There’s no conflict.” Of course, eventually, there is. But it’s remarkable how much goes right for this group of people for a while.
I wonder if the audience’s expectation that there will be conflict produces enough tension to keep us going.
Also that people aren’t rooting for missionary projects. People come to them with skepticism, and that’s only increased over time. When people are attempting to reimagine the world and are doing it outside of mainstream institutions or the establishment, it’s rare that the larger culture says, “Those guys are amazing.” More often, people say, “Yeah, but what’s the hitch?”
I think that Biosphere 2 is separate from that. But [the Synergists] put themselves out there, and it became a pop culture phenomenon. When you court that level of media attention, when you become a phenomenon of that scale, its narrative definitely spirals out of your control.
The way the group courts media attention feels oddly innocent — like it’s done in good faith, to attract attention to an issue, rather than just creating spectacle for personal gain. It’s not about one person.
Not a cult of personality.
Right. It’s so different from reality TV, which we might expect today for a bunch of people who go live in a dome for a year. They’re not trying to become celebrities.
Right. From their point of view — particularly the Biospherians, who were not media-savvy but were thrust into an international spotlight — they had an opportunity to get out a message that was important to them. At the time, the word “biosphere” wasn’t even in common vocabulary. People didn’t know what it was. This was also pre-internet. So I think the notion of a story going viral was not there yet.
But I think you’re right: This was really on the precipice of the kind of voyeuristic entertainment that we still live with today. When The Real World came out, I saw a New York Times piece that compared it to Biosphere 2. I wasn’t able to substantiate this, but there’s been some writing on Biosphere 2 that suggests that John de Mol, the creator of Big Brother, was inspired by Biosphere 2 as well. And also, of course, the show Survivor. The connection is there. There are so many dimensions that would become standard for reality television and its voyeurism at play in Biosphere 2. In some ways, it was predictive. But it also suffered from people’s voyeuristic fascination, more than perhaps they had anticipated.
I imagine that coming into this situation, where people who were involved with the project back then got burned by the media, must have been difficult. How did you convince them that you were for real and that you wanted to tell their story?
The Biosphere 2 project was a sensation. Neon
That’s the biggest part of my job, to some extent. All filmmaking is about relationships. Not in the sense of business relationships, but in the sense of collaboration and building trust with subjects. It’s all at the center of the filmmaking process.
For me, it’s all about doing my homework. Instead of going to people unsure what I want to say, I need to understand what’s been said about their projects and their life’s work, and to understand what they’ve said, and also to try to think about what hasn’t been said. To figure out how to do something unique based on a nuanced understanding of my subjects’ lives or work.
So, I think a big part of earning people’s trust was doing my homework.
But these guys were really rebuked and slammed by the media. So of course, they had some hesitation and reservations about participating. Part of my work was to convince them that I wasn’t doing what the conventional media did, in terms of depicting Biosphere 2. I wanted to tell a bigger story with a longer view. Twenty-five years had passed [when I started production]; people are ready to reappraise a story like this.
Do you think this story should inspire people to not be so cynical about these kinds of projects and to take action about things they care about? We live in a time when some people’s activism seems to take the shape of tweeting a lot. But the group you profiled saw activism as something very different.
I think what is so compelling about this group is that they actually act on their ideas. They do things. They realize projects. Their ambition is so high, and they aren’t deterred by lack of experience. They learn by doing.
Those are all things that are super inspiring. I left the filmmaking process with the idea of small groups — that small groups are a model for realizing new ideas and doing ambitious things.
I think people feel there’s a certain futility in trying to gain consensus in the world, or even within their peer group. But [this story says] that it is possible to find a smaller group of people in your smaller world that have common goals and to do things together, and that there could be a cumulative significance to that if people band together.
So I hope the film inspires people to do things. And I hope also that through this episode of isolation and social distancing, people might leave with a sense of personal transformation, an awareness of the fragility of the world, and the belief that what we do has consequences. There’s an opportunity for us to look out for each other in a new way.
Spaceship Earth will be available on Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, and participating drive-in theaters beginning May 8. See the film’s website for a full list of partners.