Once a harbinger of the future, Biosphere 2 might not have a future for much longer

John Flinn, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Oracle, Ariz. -- It was a New Age garden of Eden, hermetically sealed under glass in the Arizona desert. It was a glimpse into the far-distant future, a taste of what life might be like in a Mars colony. It was, by one estimate, one of the top 10 engineering marvels of the world.

As a social experiment, it was, unintentionally, a precursor to "Survivor, " "Big Brother" and MTV's "Real World." And it was the inspiration for one of the dumbest movies in the entire Pauly Shore oeuvre.

One thing Biosphere 2 never was was dull science. And one thing it may not be is around much longer.

The world's largest greenhouse, with its artificial rain forest, deserts, savannahs, farms and miniature ocean, is up for sale, and there's a chance it will shut down as a tourist attraction by the end of summer. If you've ever wanted to tour Biosphere 2, you'd best do it soon.

Half an hour from Tucson and 90 minutes from Phoenix, it makes a fascinating change-of-pace excursion on a spring-training vacation. Since last year, when Columbia University pulled out and serious research tapered off, Biosphere 2 has flung open its airlocks and welcomed the public inside as part of the standard tour.

From the start, it was an audacious idea: to create a miniature, self- sustaining world in a test tube. Four men and four women were sealed inside for two years, during which they had to produce their own oxygen, grow their own food, recycle their own water and keep their fragile little ecosphere in balance. Its goal was nothing less than to re-create the complex web of life on "Biosphere 1," as they called Planet Earth. (Later, seven other Biospherians, as they were called, spent an additional six months inside.)

It was a collaboration between Ed Bass, a Fort Worth oil billionaire, and John Allen, a New Age visionary with a distinctly eclectic resume: onetime union organizer and protege of W.E.B. DuBois, Harvard MBA, metallurgist, world traveler and manager of a theater troupe at a New Mexico commune called Synergias Ranch. He sometimes went under the name "Johnny Dolphin."

Built from 1987 to 1991 at the foot of the jagged Santa Catalina Mountains in the Sonora Desert at a cost of $150 million, Biosphere 2 encloses 3.15 acres beneath 6,000 glass panels. It's 91 feet tall at its highest point and contains two enormous mechanical "lungs" to circulate air. Up close, it looks like a Mayan temple complex designed by I.M. Pei. It's so imposing and futuristic-looking that I half expected to find a James Bond villain stroking a cat inside.

To defray the considerable cost of running it, Biosphere 2 was designed as a combination science project and theme park -- one reason it was never taken seriously by many in the scientific community. At one time, it was the third-leading tourist attraction in Arizona; more than 2 million people have toured the site.

These days, though, the on-site hotel is shuttered, five of the six gift shops are closed, and the full-service restaurant where visitors once ate Bioburgers has been replaced by a tiny snack bar selling little but hot dogs and Snapple. When I visited in early February, the parking lot was nearly empty. Only 30 people were on my tour.

Ironically, though, it's a much more fascinating place to tour than it was during in its heyday. While visitors once were limited to pressing their noses up against the foggy glass from outside, they can now wander through most of the interior.

"It's the most airtight thing ever built," said our tour guide, Lynn Brooks, as he led us inside. "It's tighter than a submarine, tighter than the space shuttle. Nothing could get in or out."

During the guided tour, which lasted about 90 minutes, we wandered through the living quarters, with its complex of small, two-story apartments, a kitchen and dining room where the Biospherians ate their meager meals, and what looked like an early version of an Internet cafe, where they could work on computers and communicate with the outside world.

The indoor rain forest, nine stories high and meant to simulate an Amazon jungle, was off limits. But we could wander through the four other "biomes," or ecological zones: the upper and lower savannahs and the two deserts. There was a small, Australia-style billabong, or swamp. The air was slightly humid and light was everywhere, just like in a greenhouse.

The only living creatures I could see were crazy ants -- their scientific name is Paratrechina longicornus -- that swarmed over the banisters and every other surface. A loud rasping noise, like the sound of a spouting whale, came from a machine that generated waves every 20 seconds in the million-gallon saltwater "ocean," which has its own coral reef, tropical fish and sandy beach. Closed to the public, but visible from an overlook, was the indoor "farm" that produced their food. It's been partitioned, and it was pretty barren when I looked in.

Before they moved in, in September 1991, the eight original Biospherians and the project's support staff traveled the planet to gather up all the animals and plants needed to populate their world, like Noah in reverse. There were 3,800 species in all: everything from papaya trees to hummingbirds to galagas, lemur-like creatures suggested by Allen's friend William S. Burroughs. There was even a frankincense plant, a housewarming gift from the sultan of Oman.

"I would have loved to have stayed in there even longer -- if we could have worked out some of the problems," said Linda Leigh, one of the original Biospherians. A botanist who managed the "wilderness" areas, Leigh, who still lives nearby and teaches at Central Arizona College, is no longer connected with the project. Over breakfast at a cafe near the site, she told me about life on the inside.

It was distracting, she said, to be working in the rain forest or orchard while tourists with camcorders were outside tapping on the glass. "Sometimes I'd 'perform' for them, and other times I'd go hide."

More enjoyable, she said, was the time Jane Goodall stood outside with a notebook. "She's the number one observer of primates in the world," said Leigh, "and in this case I was the primate."

But almost from the moment they sealed the airlock, things began to go wrong. They'd picked the site for its bountiful sunshine, but those two years coincided with an El Niņo episode, and the cloudy Arizona skies blocked a quarter of the usual solar rays. The photosynthesis of oxygen-giving plants slowed sharply. The hummingbirds began to die off. So did the bumblebees. Plants didn't get pollinated; crops began to fail. The pigs raided the vegetable gardens before they, too, died. The screeching galagas kept the Biospherians awake at night. Chickens laid only 256 eggs the first year, although their output increased when they were fed a rich diet of the ubiquitous cockroaches. Eventually, 19 of the 25 vertebrate species in their little world went "extinct." Ironically, the only birds to thrive were three English sparrows that weren't supposed to be there in the first place. They'd stowed away during construction.

"Basically, we suffocated, starved and went mad," Jane Poynter, one of the Biospherians, was widely quoted as saying.

Said Leigh: "It was tough. We had to work really hard to keep everything going, and we weren't getting enough to eat."

On average, the Biospherians -- all fairly trim going in -- lost 13.5 percent of their body weight.

Most of the crew had televisions in their apartments, but, according to Brooks, the tour guide, they couldn't bear to watch. "All those McDonald's and Burger King commercials," he said, "were murder."

Food production and diet was supervised by Dr. Roy Walford, the oldest Biospherian, who believed an austere, low-calorie diet was the key to longevity. (Walford died last year at the age of 79 from Lou Gehrig's disease. ) For breakfast, the crew ate a gruel made of sorghum, wheat or rice, washed down with herbal tea. Lunch was a salad of greens and papayas, maybe with a little rice and beans. Dinner was more of the same, accompanied by sweet potatoes, beets and bananas.

"On paper, we were all getting healthier," Leigh said, "but it was hard to find enough energy each day to get through our tasks."

Their coffee plants produced only enough beans for one cup per person every two weeks. For their one-year anniversary, they rounded up as many bananas as they could, and took a vote: dry them or ferment them? Booze won.

"The taste was terrible," Leigh said, "but it did the job. We needed something to cheer us up."

There were accusations of food hoarding and, worse, theft. Eventually they placed a lock on the refrigerator.

Food, though, was far from their most serious problem. Oxygen was slowly vanishing from their atmosphere, and nobody could figure out why. After 13 months, the percentage fell from a normal 21 percent to 14.5 percent, roughly the equivalent of living at 17,000 feet.

"It got to where you couldn't even get out a whole sentence or take two steps without stopping for breath," Leigh said.

If oxygen levels fell much farther, the humans would have shared the same fate as most of the other vertebrates in Biosphere 2. (Eventually it was discovered that some oxygen was being absorbed by the structure's concrete, and some by microbes in the soil.)

Short of breath and gnawed by constant hunger, the Biospherians lapsed into behavior that would be familiar to regular viewers of reality TV. They argued over food and work priorities; eventually, they stopped speaking to one another. They tried to lighten things up by snorkeling together in the artificial ocean or throwing monthly parties on the beach. "We tried to have some fun," Leigh said, "but it didn't always work."

They split into two antagonistic tribes. One wanted to bring in more oxygen and food; the others wanted to plow under some of Biosphere's "wilderness" areas for food production and make do with less oxygen. Eventually the former carried the day, at least on the oxygen question. Eight hundred thousand cubic feet of oxygen was pumped into Biosphere.

"We were all standing in front of the vents when it came in," Leigh said. "It made a big difference right away. It was like a dark cloud was lifted."

When news of the oxygen boost eventually got out -- the management initially tried to keep it secret -- the project's reputation plunged even further. It hadn't helped that the New Age-style managers kept a tight lid on news and refused at first to have research published in peer-reviewed journals. Then there was the pop-culture atmosphere: The Biospherians' jumpsuits were created by Marilyn Monroe's clothing designer, Marlon Brando stopped by for a visit, and Graham Nash sang "Our House" to them over an Internet hookup. Things touched bottom with the 1996 send-up, "Bio-Dome," starring Pauly Shore, Henry Gibson and Patty Hearst.

Two years to the day after entering, the eight men and women opened the airlock and emerged from their big terrarium, pale and noticeably thinner. But, even some detractors had to admit, just sticking it out for two years was a significant accomplishment. And some important things were learned, some intriguing questions raised.

In the years since, Biosphere's reputation has grown in the scientific community. In 1995, Bass fired the managers and brought in Columbia University to run the project. Important research has been done on the effect of global warming and rising carbon dioxide levels on coral and other species. Papers were published in more than 25 peer-reviewed journals.

But, at the end of 2003, Columbia backed out of the partnership. Since then Biosphere's future has been uncertain. Christopher T. Bannon, the general manager, declined to be interviewed for this story. But he recently told the Arizona Star: "We're looking at everything from government entities, universities and private schools, to church groups, resorts and spas as potential owners. We'd love to see Biosphere 2 used as a research activity, but we know that may not be the end result."

Leigh, for one, is eager to keep it going.

"There were problems, but they could have been fixed," she said. "We were actually pretty close to getting it right."


Getting there

From Tucson, follow Oracle Road north for about 30 minutes; Biosphere 2 is on the right at mile marker 96.5. From Phoenix, follow Interstate 10 southeast toward Tucson. Go left (east) on Tangerine Road, and when it dead- ends on Oracle Road, turn left. From Phoenix it's about 90 minutes..

Where to stay

Most people visit Biosphere 2 as a day trip from Tucson or Phoenix.

Super 8 Motel, 15691 North Oracle Road, Tucson, AZ 85739. (520-818-9500). The motel nearest to Biosphere 2. Doubles start at $64, plus tax..

What to do

Biosphere 2, 32540 S. Biosphere Road, Oracle, AZ. (520) 838-6200, The guided tour lasts 60 to 90 minutes and involves about a mile of walking and some stairs. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. $19.95 adults; $12.95 children under 12; under 6 free..

For more information

Arizona Office of Tourism, (866) 275-5816,

E-mail Executive Travel Editor John Flinn at