Hothouse Flowers

Arizona's Biosphere 2 gets new management — and finally, respect — as U of A takes the once doomed dome into the forefront of climate change research


Published by: Phoenix Magazine, February 2008

For most of its 20 years, Biosphere 2, the sprawling geodesic-domed research center located in Oracle, Arizona, about 35 miles north of Tucson, has suffered a rather annoying public image problem. No matter how much ground-breaking environmental science continued to be conducted out of the experimental facility – a significant engineering feat in itself, as the world’s biggest closed ecological system – the iconic airtight terrarium would forever be better known as comic fodder for Jay Leno monologues and Pauly Shore movies.

The Biosphere 2’s hermetically sealed, isolating architecture – a mix of Cold War fatalism and Soleri-on-steroids Arcology – coupled with the project’s far-out founding philosophy (the bubble was originally created as a place to test possible Martian colonization, among other things), proved too tempting for comics to resist. Even its name – Biosphere 1 was considered to be the Earth, get it? – seemed an unfortunate science geek joke.

Hollywood harpooned the big bubble in the 1996 Shore stoner comedy Bio-Dome, and, more recently, immortalized it as a classic cartoon punchline in last summer’s The Simpson’s Movie.

It got another poke this past year in a tell-all book by a member of the original eight-person “Biospherian” crew, who painted her two-year participation in the famously failed early ’90’s experiment in self-sufficiency as “the original Survivor,” fraught with mean-nerd in-fighting, data tampering and even rumors of unauthorized pizza delivery.

The facility’s reclusive Texas billionaire financier, Ed Bass (who recently poured another $30 million into its funding), may soon be getting the last laugh, however. The University of Arizona, which took over management of the property last July following its controversial rescue, after two years on the sales block, by a residential developer, has ambitious plans for re-casting Biosphere 2 as the world’s most perfectly-equipped lab for studying climate change.

Buoyed by the growing public interest in global warming and other green issues, B2, as the institute surrounding the center has been dubbed, is finally getting its props. The place even has certifiable Al Gore cred: One of the co-authors of the VP’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning paper was U of A geosciences professor Jonathan Overpeck, now – in what you could call “A Most Convenient Truth” – on the B2’s board of directors.

“The timing is right,” says Pierre Meystre, U of A physics professor and director of the newly formed B2 Institute, which will develop projects for the Biosphere. “The general public is becoming more aware that global climate change is real, and at the Biosphere, we have this huge space where we can conduct experiments at the right scale to understand what happens in nature.”

However, Biosphere director Travis Huxman cautions powers who think the facility’s scaled replica rainforest, grassland, desert and even ocean-under-glass can simply be used as the Earth’s Mini-Me. The controlled ecosystems won’t be expended just to speed up all the effects laid out in Gore’s slide presentation and flip to how the planet will really look in 50 years.

“It’s true, we’re creating an accelerator,” Huxman says. “But we’re doing it in a more specialized way – isolating variables, and testing them one at a time. In the real world, temperature, light, rainfall and vegetation are all changing at the same time – and that’s not what we want to duplicate here.”

That might be another movie – “Terror Dome!” – that even B2’s inspired new proprietors aren’t keen on becoming guinea pigs for.


Photo by Brian Goddard

Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Arizona