From oxygen shortages to divisive factions, Mark Nelson recalls the challenges of two years in the Biosphere 2 ecosystem – and the media circus it spawned
WE “BIOSPHERIANS” knew living together for two years in our enclosed mini-world would be a challenge. Imagine sharing 2193 meals with the same seven people. We entered as friends, but feared the stress of isolation. We hoped for paradise and braced for hell.
Indeed, disaster was never far away. We faced accumulating carbon dioxide and disappearing oxygen. We risked being choked by pollution or starved by crop failures. Some critics thought our experiment would be over within months. But we persevered.
We called our 3-acre ecosystem in the Arizona desert Biosphere 2. It was an attempt to create a new type of laboratory for studying global ecology, by replicating features of Biosphere 1 – better known as Earth.
My abiding memory is the visceral connection we felt with the living organisms that were inside with us. They were our life-support system as much as our technology was. The feeling of connectedness was profound. Inside our sealed habitat, everything we did had swift consequences. We joked that we had entered a time machine: because of its small size and the intensity of life inside, everything happened much faster than outside.
Inspiration for the project lay with Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, who pioneered understanding of how Earth’s biosphere controls fundamental planetary processes, like the carbon and water cycles. The idea of creating life-support systems for space travel was also part of our vision. I had been pursuing these ideas with the Institute of Ecotechnics, a body I helped start 20 years before. And one of my collaborators, Texas oilman Edward Bass, financed Biosphere 2.