The story of Biosphere 2 is real-life sci-fi. In the early 90s, eight people lived inside an air-tight, giant glass structure filled with replicas of the earth’s ecosystems with the goal of living in a completely self-sufficient way for all human needs including food, water, and oxygen.
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Biosphere 2 website (2023). https://biosphere2.org/
Cornelius, K (2021). Biosphere 2: The Once Infamous Live-In Terrarium Is Transforming Climate Research. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/biosphere-2-the-once-infamous-live-in-terrarium-is-transforming-climate-research/
Gray, K. (2021). The inside story of Biosphere 2, a forgotten experiment to rethink human civilization. Salon. https://www.salon.com/2021/03/27/the-inside-story-of-biosphere-2-a-forgotten-experiment-to-rethink-human-civilization/
Nelson, M. (n.d.) Biosphere 2: What Really Happened. Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. https://dartmouthalumnimagazine.com/articles/biosphere-2-what-really-happened
Rose, S. (2020). Eight go mad in Arizona: how a lockdown experiment went horribly wrong. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/jul/13/spaceship-earth-arizona-biosphere-2-lockdown
Synergia Ranch website (2023). https://synergiaranch.com/about-us/
Weyer, C., Walford, R. L., Harper, I. T., Milner, M., MacCallum, T., Tataranni, P. A., & Ravussin, E. (2000). Energy metabolism after 2 y of energy restriction: the biosphere 2 experiment. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 72(4), 946–953. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.4.946
Zimmer, C. (2019). The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/29/sunday-review/biosphere-2-climate-change.html
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Hi everyone, I’m Sarah.
B: & I’m Becca! And you’re listening to Unsavory.
Today’s story has been requested multiple times from our listeners. Most recently, we got an email from a listener - Sarah Purcell - suggesting we cover this and she even included some sources, which was so nice, thank you Sarah!
B: Yes, thank you for making our job easier!
This story is one of those stories that seems like it’s completely made up - it’s straight out of a sci-fi film. But Biosphere 2 really happened and I’m going to tell you about it today.
Becca, do you know anything about Biosphere 2?
B: Basically nothing. I know it was an experiment…on climate change?
S: honestly, that’s pretty accurate. Biosphere 2 is basically an epic science experiment meets Big Brother - so for 2 years, 8 people lived inside an air-tight, giant glass structure that was filled with realistic replicas of the earth’s ecosystems with the goal of living in a way that was completely self-sufficient for all human needs… including food, water, and oxygen. & it didn’t exactly go as planned…
B: Ahh I’m getting Love is Blind/Survivor vibes. I am already so invested.
If you know, you know, and if you don’t, you’re about to find out!
Are you ready?
B: Let’s do it!
Shout out to my sources for today’s episode which are all listed in the show notes at unsavorypodcast.com. An article by Carl Zimmer in the NYT, one by Steve Rose in the Guardian, and a first person account from Mark Nelson for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, who was actually a member of the original Biospherian crew.
Our story starts many years before the Biosphere 2 experiment officially began. The idea for Biosphere 2 was born on Synergia (Sinner-gia) ranch in New Mexico in the early 70s. The ranch was an ecovillage founded in 1969 by John Allen and Marie Harding, and it was home to free spirits, theatre kids, and those interested in a more eco-friendly way of living. Those that lived on the ranch planted trees, grew organic gardens, started small businesses and eventually, a nonprofit, called Institute of Ecotechnics (IE). The ranch is actually still operational today and according to their website “Synergia Ranch is a Center for Innovation, it provides an environment that supports creative individuals in the fields of ecology, biospherics, engineering, architecture, wastewater gardens, sustainable forestry, orchardry, book publishing, cuisine, fine arts, healing-arts, theater, writing, painting and poetry.”
B: What a well-rounded set of activities
They really do it all. John Allen, one of the founders of Synergia ranch, is a fascinating guy. He studied anthropology and history at Northwestern and Oklahoma universities, he studied writing at Stanford University, and then served as a machinist in the US Army Corps of Engineers. He then earned a metallurgical-mining engineer degree with honors from the Colorado School of Mines. He also worked as a factory worker in a meat-packing plant and organized the Meat Packers Union on the South Side of Chicago. In 1963, Allen went on a two-year journey around the world to study how indigenous cultures live in harmony with their ecosystems, and he went to Africa, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. His travels gave him a great appreciation for both science and art, and when he returned to San Fransico, he co-founded the Theater of All Possibilities (TAP) which is a theatre company that operated out of Synergia Ranch, and the Theater company actually toured through the United States and around the world for decades, from the late 60s to the late 80s, often giving performances that had some element of ecological advocacy, including performances in the Australian Outback, Peruvian Amazon, and the sacred forest in Osogbo, Nigeria.
So John Allen really did it all, but one of his primary interests had always been ecology and finding a way for humans to live harmoniously with earth systems in a more sustainable way. Infact, most of the people who hung around Synergia ranch over the years believed that the people of earth had about 40 years to really change their tune and start preserving the earth or they were heading straight for the next mass extinction. He was quoted in the NYT saying “Western civilization isn’t simply dying. It’s dead. We are probing into its ruins to take whatever is useful for the building of the new civilization to replace it.” But he wasn’t just wallowing in doom and gloom… he was taking action.
Since the 1970s, he had been drawing diagrams of a huge scientific and social experiment he called “Spaceship Earth City” an idea that would eventually evolve into Biosphere 2. The vision for Biosphere 2 was that it would fuse technology and ecology to create an enclosed system that would be completely self-sustaining and that humans could potentially inhabit in case the world ever became uninhabitable. As you can imagine, a project of this scale is not cheap and funding was originally an issue, but Biosphere 2 would get it’s big break from oil-billionaire-turned-hippie, Ed Bass, who was living on Synergia ranch and felt inspired by John Allen’s idea. $250,000,000 in financial support later, and the team from the Institute of Ecotechnics including John Allen set out to actually build Biosphere 2.
B: YESH what a generous guy.
You know what they say - make friends with oil billionaire hippies! Any idea why it’s called Biosphere 2?
B: A biosphere is like an ecosystem, right? So it sounds like they were trying to make their own self sustaining ecosystem in that glass structure you mentioned.
Well the 2 implies that it’s not the first biosphere - so biosphere 1 is actually earth! And biosphere 2 is the back up plan.
Allen and the Institute of Ecotechnic’s core team created a new corporation, Space Biospheres Ventures, they hired over 200 scientists and specialists, engineers and contractors. And it wasn’t difficult to hire thag many people - at the start, people were really inspired by this bold idea and the possibility of really being able to make a difference in the health of the planet and the future of mankind. Man had just walked on the moon about a decade before and the awareness about climate change was growing, so I think the timing was right in terms of generating the support of both the scientific community and the public.
And there was a TON of public buzz around this science experiment. John Allen had the vision, Ed Bass had the funds, and many brilliant minds all working together and collaborating towards the same common goal - create a second earth.
B: So to clarify, all of this was being done to see if we could be more self-sufficient and less reliant on certain things like oil?
Yeah, there was an awareness that earths ecosystems were being unsustainably exploited to maintain human lifestyles and they wanted to demonstrate and more sustainable way of living, specifically within a closed environment to see if living in something like this in space would ever be possible.
Construction took place over 4 years from 1987 to 1991, and when Biosphere 2 was finally ready, it was breathtaking. Photos on our Insta, if you don’t know what this place looks like, you don’t want to miss it. The beautiful, sprawling glass structure was located in Oracle, Arizona at the base of the Santa Catalina mountains. The structure itself is a mix of glass-panelled pyramids and domes, and due the fact that the goal of Biosphere 2 was to be completely self-sufficient and independent of Biosphere 1 (the earth), the windows had to be perfectly airtight so that air exchange would be almost non-existent. During the day, the hot Arizona sun would cause the air inside to expand and then when it cooled at night the air contracted, so the structure had large diaphragms called “lungs” that would allow for these volume changes. And of course, it’s not like you can just crack a window when things get too hot, so heating and cooling needed to be supplied through a closed loop system and there was an energy centre that provided electricity and hot/cold water. I am absolutely not an engineer, but this sounds pretty dang impressive.
B: This is probably how all buildings are made and we’re just clueless. But yes, the lungs sound so cool.
Haha for sure. If anyone is interested in these details there are TONS online that made my eyes glaze over, but if infrastructure is your thing - I’m sure it’s very interesting for the right people.
Here’s the stuff I find amazing. Contained within the walls of Biosphere 2 were 7 biome areas including a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove wetland, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, and two human biomes including the 27,000 sqft agricultural system and a human habitat with living spaces, labs, and workshops.
B: Woah, that sounds so cool. How big was the entire thing?
The entire structure was just over 3 acres or 3 football fields, so there was quite a bit of space in there, although with the amount of ecosystems they crammed in there, I’m surprised it wasn’t even bigger!
B: Is this thing still standing? I want to visit.
YES! And active! More on this later.
On September 26, 1991,the first mission began with the goal of sending the Biospherians in and not letting them out for two whole years. The Biospherian crew was comprised of four men and four women, including a medical doctor and researcher Roy Walford, who was actually a leading advocate of calorie restriction for life extension and health improvement, and 7 others who were not scientists but were heavily involved in the design and planning for Biosphere 2, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, and Linda Leigh.
Can you imagine signing up to remain inside a building for TWO YEARS? With the same 8 people?
B: With a man who believes in calorie restriction for health? I don’t think so!
B: Were any of the participants married? How old were they? I have so many questions.
So I tried to find more details about their personal biographies but there wasn’t much out there! I’m not sure about marriage or families, but I do know that Jayne Poynter and Taber MacCallum were a couple and are still together, and age wise they all look to range from late 20s to mid 30s.
There is actually a documentary on Netflix called Spaceship Earth that might have some of those details! I watched it a year ago but I didn’t refresh my memory on it for this episode because I’m currently living without wifi haha all research was done on my cell phone data.
Once the crew was sealed inside, the experiment started right away and the crew got to work. And when I saw work, there was LOTS to do, but I mostly mean growing their own food. According to biospherian Mark Nelson, about 25% of each day was spent farming, and the rest was divided between research and maintenance, writing reports, cooking (which actually took a lot of their time), biome management, and animal husbandry. The total for food-related work took about 45% of crew time, with tasks including the rough and fine processing, animal care and cooking. To give you some perspective, it took about 2-3 weeks to make a cup of coffee from the rainforest's coffee trees.
B: I bet that coffee tasted so good!
Truly, an unbeatable “coffee moment”.
Growing nutritious food was a top priority, and yet, not one of the Biospherians had come from a farming background, which seems like a bit of an oversight, and almost right away, hunger became a constant companion for all of them. They did have a small supply of food to get them started and help them along the way, but it would only be a couple months before that ran out and if they couldn’t grow enough food, they would not be able to survive the 2 years.
B: Do you think they would actually let them die?
No, definitely not. People on the outside were concerned for the Biosoherians and were monitoring them.
Biosphere 2 was designed to produce a nutritionally adequate diet according to the missions doctor, Roy Walford … but if you remember, Dr. Walford was one of the leading advocates for calorie restriction for life extension. This is a theory that has weak evidence and is controversial, even today, and would of course depend on the individual and what sort of caloric intake they had at baseline before cutting back. Lots of variables overall, and we know that caloric restriction is definitely NOT for everyone and can have physical and psychological and social impacts, including feeling out of control around food, mood disturbances, and weight loss. (B: mhmmm)
So the Biospherians were hungry, but they were surrounded by food! Including herbs, there were 86 varieties of crops grown in Biosphere 2, with the most important ones being grains, starches, beans, peanuts, vegetables and fruit. They also had chickens and goats and pigs. They grew Azolla, which is a little water fern that was grown in the rice tanks and paddy fields, was a source of high-protein feed for the Tilapia fish and was also harvested as chicken food. And then there were a lot of insects in Biosphere 2 as well, for many reasons including pest control, but some of the insects, like pill bugs and cockroaches, were also used for animal feed.
B: Were they told what to do though? I wouldn’t know where to start when it comes to harvesting something like grain.
They had contact with their management team and advisors and they were so creative with their problem solving that I’m sure they had experts weighing in almost daily. They had tons of researchers and scientists on their teams.
Growing food in Biosphere 2 was a major challenge. There were two growing seasons, one in the winter and one in the summer. Some of the primary challenges included variation in temperatures and the amount of sunlight, all things that were beyond the Biospherians control. As luck would have it, the two year period that the experiment was running had unusually cloudy autumn and winter weather patterns in the area for the entire two year period.
They also faced many pest problems, including the two-spotted spider mite, broad mite, thrip, mealy-bug aphid, powdery mildew, root knot nematode, pill bug, and cockroach (B: ew). They tried various methods to control the pest problem, including spraying crops with vegetable oil, but none of the methods proved significantly effective and the oil spray actually made the crops more attractive to the cockroaches, so that backfired (B: OK that seems kinda obvious though). They also tried pruning, washing with water and spraying with soap and sulfur sprays. They experimented with different humidity levels, which would reduce some pests but then create the perfect breeding grounds for others. They also dealt with root infection with root knot nematode which was controlled through crop rotation. It was non-stop. So clearly the Biospherians, with their limited agricultural knowledge, had a lot to learn, and combined with their constantly rumbling tummies… maybe you can see where this is going.
B: hunger can make you do silly things.
Overall the Biospherians produced approximately 80% of the food for the eight-man crew during the entire two-year mission, supplemented with some provisions that had been provided before entering. The most productive crops were wheat, starches (mostly sweet potatoes, but also taro, white potato, green banana), legumes (hyacinth beans were the most successful but also some kidney beans, pinto beans and soy beans), vegetables (leafy greens, carrots, chard, cabbages, beets, squashes, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers), and fruit (by far the most productive being bananas, but papaya also produced very well and guave and figs did okay too). So you can see that there is pretty good variety here, but fat made up <10% of their intake, and the typically fat should make up about 20-35% based on the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges!
B: And fat does so much for making us feel full and satisfied! It also makes things taste delicious. Did they not eat any of the animals?
The diet was largely vegetarian, but after a while, two crew members found that they had become “sensitive” to eating even the small amounts of meat that was in the diet and the crew opted to stop eating meat altogether, but they did include eggs, cheese and milk products. (B: they made CHEESE?!). The diet overall provided less than 2000kcal/d in the first year and about 2200 kcal per day, which is generally estimated to be enough for a sedentary adult to maintain their weight, but similar to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, the Biospherians were maintaining a high amount of activity including physical labour on a daily basis and would have required much more. And while they were experiencing hunger, the doctor that was with them was also pro-calorie restriction and was likely explaining that their feelings of hunger were good for their health. The doctor monitored caloric intake daily and called it a “healthy-starvation” diet.
B: He'd be the first to go. Voted off the biosphere.
The crews ability to adapt to the calorie-limited diet differed greatly between members. Many of them pined for their favourite foods like sweets and pizza. Some felt hungrier than others. Some relief came around 6 months into the experiment when the peanut plants became productive and the crew was able to increase their calorie and fat intake. Mark Nelson later described that he sometimes got so hungry he would eat peanuts with their shells on. Each crew member ate about 1lb of sweet potatoes a day. All the crew members commented on the fact that after the first few months they found their taste buds were adapting to the diet and that foods that had initially tasted bland seemed more tasty and that natural sugars in foods such as fruit, sweet potato, and beet & were far more detectable.
Socially, cooking and presenting food became a very important part of everyday life. The standard of the cooking and the quality of a meal served on a particular day would have an effect on the vibes and mood of the crew and it became almost a competitive issue amongst the crew to see who could produce the best meals.
B: So we went from an episode of Survivor to an episode of Top Chef.
Haha yes! They got really creative - they made banana and bean stew, potato-tomato cakes with salsa, beet soups, fruit chutneys, and homemade banana wine. They used figs and citrus to sweeten dishes, and they had “chili” duels to see who could produce the spiciest dish. The valued presentation and used colourful fruits and vegetables to add visual appeal to their dishes - you can see a picture of a cake they made on our instagram. They produced everything from scratch - butchering, drying, and refining foods into their edible forms. Homemade pizza was an extra special treat as growing and processing the ingredients took 4 months. One even made a cheese cake with just goat’s milk - no sugar or eggs (B: so just a slab of goat's cheese?). LOL I guess so!
Much of the crew’s social life became centered around food. Holidays were celebrated with large feasts, and the food-systems manager would put by small stores of food that could be eaten on these occasions. On feast days all members of the crew would participate in cooking, each making their own specialties, and most of the day would be spent enjoying the feast. One positive takeaway was that all of the crew members described an intense connection to the food growing, harvesting, and cooking process that would last throughout the rest of their lives.
Overall, the Biospherians lost about 16% of their body weight while in Biosphere 2. They dropped weight rapidly throughout the first year, then stabilized, and then regained some in the second year when food production became more steady. Medical markers indicated the health of the crew during the two years was actually pretty good. They showed improvement in some health indicators such as lowering of blood cholesterol and blood pressure. There was also some research that showed the biospherians bodies became more efficient at extracting essential nutrients from the food they were eating as an adaptation to the low-calorie, high nutrient diet.
But… they were hungry. And with hunger often comes some mental instability and irritability, also known as “hanger”. And the Biospherians were in a very socially unique and challenging situation. I actually haven’t mentioned this yet, but one of the parts that I find so weird about this experiment is that there was a theatrical component in that Biosphere 2 was actually a tourist destination - people would visit and look through the windows and watch them.
B: WHAT! That’s so weird. Could the participants see the spectators?
Oh yeah!! They would interact with them through the glass.
Beyond the food-related challenges of the mission, other obstacles quickly arose. Just two weeks into the mission, Jane Poynter, got her hand caught in the rice thresher, losing the tip of one of her fingers. Dr. Walford was able to stitch it up but later decided that she need to seek outside medical attention. It would later be revealed that when she returned from the hospital, she snuck supplies in with her. This was supposed to be a completely closed off experiment, so when the media found out that she snuck in a duffel bag full of supplies, they claimed the experiment was invalidated. Many researchers agreed - afterall, a duffel bag of supplies wouldn’t be an option for an actual self-sustaining colony.
On top of that, oxygen levels decreased faster than anticipated, with a corresponding build-up of carbon dioxide. Earth’s atmosphere is about 21% oxygen, but inside the biosphere it fell to 14.2 %. Mark Nelson recalls that simple walking around the Biosphere felt like they were climbing a mountain. He said he could barely finish a sentence without feeling winded.
B: So now they are hungry and they can’t breathe properly…that’s probably not good for the longevity of their lives…
Yes. Understandably, morale deteriorated. Living under biosphere conditions was a challenge at the best of times. The hunger, oxygen deprivation, and being under constant observation by tourists and students on feildtrips only heighted tensions within the Biosphere. The crew split into two camps, one that was in favour of bringing in more food and oxygen to keep the experiment going without further suffering, and the other that was in favour of keeping the integrity of the experiment and not seeking outside support, no matter what the cost.
But the outside world could clearly see that the Biospherians were struggling, and eventually some food and oxygen was brought in. Mark Nelson wrote that “People starting laughing like crazy and running around. I felt like I’d been 90 years old and now I was a teenager again. I realised I hadn’t seen anybody running for months.” But while the team rejoiced, the outside world started to turn on the project and dismiss it as poor science.
Poor science or not, the experiment ran to completion - a full 2 years from September 26, 1991 to September 26, 1993. Some say this experiment did exactly what it was supposed to do - allow for trouble shooting and for the Biospherians to learn from their mistakes.
Scientists and ecologists looke back at Biosphere 2 as a colossal failure. Afterall, it was unable to generate breathable air and adequate food for 8 humans despite a $250 million investment.
After the failure of mission 1, John Allen and his team were fired, escorted away from the premises by federal marshalls, and a new CEO was brought in by helicopter.
B: Wasn’t this John’s project though?
Yep. But somehow he got vetoed. The new CEO was Steve Bannon. Yes, that Steve Bannon. The same guy who served as the White House's chief strategist for Donald Trump (B: NO WAY). I think this should tell you everything you need to know about Biosphere 2’s second attempt.
After Biosphere 2's first mission, new management was brought in and extensive research and system improvements were undertaken, including sealing concrete to prevent the uptake of carbon dioxide to help with the air quality. The second mission began on March 6, 1994, with Steve Bannon at the helm and a planned run of ten months. The crew was made up of Norberto Alvarez-Romo, John Druitt, Matt Finn, Pascale Maslin, Charlotte Godfrey, Rodrigo Romo and Tilak Mahato. And in some ways, this mission was more successful, because learning from the mistakes and growing pains of the first crew, the second crew was about to achieve adequate and efficient food production.
Some members from the original Biospherian crew were not happy with the way that John Allen and previous management had been fired and replaced by Steve Bannon. So only 1 month after the launch of mission 2, on April 5, 1994 at 3 am, two of the original crew members - Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, approached Biosphere 2 and opened one of the double-airlock doors. They also opened 3 emergency exists and smashed 5 panes of glass. Alling and Van Thillo believed it was their ethical duty to try and end the experiment, with Alling saying she feared for the safety of the new crew. About 10% of the Biosphere's air was exchanged with the outside during this time. However, Mission 2 continued on for a couple more months until it was ended on September 6, 1994.
The drama is almost done, but to finish it off - let’s get back to Steve Bannon. Alling and Van Thillo filed a civil lawsuit against Space Biosphere Ventures and Steve Bannon for breach of contract for the way that the management team was let go after Mission 1. They also alleged verbally abusive behaviour by Bannon, and proposed that his actual goal was to destroy the experiment. At the end of the trial, the court ruled in favor of Alling and Van Thillo and ordered Space Biosphere Ventures to pay them $600,000 (B: woah), but also ordered the plaintiffs to pay the company $40,089 for the damage they had caused to Biosphere 2.
You might be wondering what happened to Biosphere 2? Well, it still exists! It’s owned by University of Arizona, which means the facility is likely being used for some top-notch research. Some of the projects ongoing at Biosphere 2 include Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO), a project which uses sensors to monitor how soil develops; the Lunar Greenhouse, which seeks to understand how to grow vegetables on the Moon or Mars, and a vertical farming project. They also still have the tropical rainforest lab and the ocean reef lab.
B: I think we should go visit.
I’m so down. Despite the fact that Biosphere 2 became somewhat of a joke in the science world and is largely recognized as a failure, the story itself offers a lot of point for reflection. It’s pretty amazing that a group of inspired and motivated young theatre hippies were able to pull off an experiment of this scale.
B: Impressive, for sure. But I think the purpose of this experiment is still a bit lost on me. Was it cool? Absolutely. But necessary to science? I dunno. It’s not like it was fully self-sustaining and could be reproduced on another planet. They were still using outside oxygen and light sources…since it was all windows. I do think it is interesting to see the human impact this study had. But one question I still have is whether there were any Biosphere romances…
For sure, a lot of people see this experiment as a colossal, expensive failure. Another main takeaway for me was just how challenging the actual food production was - and they had put a LOT of thought into the species and ecosystems that the Biospherians would be working with. So many of us - myself included - are disconnected from our farmers and food processors and the amount of work that goes into producing enough food for a meal. I was feeling so appreciative of my cup of coffee, which takes me 5 minutes to brew, instead of the 2-3 weeks that the Biospherians had to deal with!
B: Absolutely. It makes me super appreciative for how easy we have it. Such an interesting research experiment! And probably not one that would be replicated today. Unless there was a film crew… Great job, Sarah. Thanks for listening everyone!