Thursday, February 1, 2018

Biosphere: Sing it out, honey!

Lung, Biosphere 2, Oracle, AZ.  ©2018 Tina Quinn Durham
If you're gonna sing, sing loud (Travis Tritt)

A less terrifying but equally fascinating part of the Biosphere 2 tour was its now non-functional lung. Hold on, you say. How can a building have a lung?

Biosphere 2 was designed to be a closed system, illuminated by the sun through 6,500 glass windows. Glass is rigid; it does not freely contract or expand as the temperature changes. So when the morning sun hits those glass windows, 7,200,000 cubic feet of air heat up, expanding far beyond the ability of glass to compensate. When the sun sets, the air inside Biosphere 2 cools and the process reverses.  The air inside the building contracts, creating another potential window-shattering catastrophe.  That's why the engineers gave Biosphere 2 a way to compensate for dramatic changes in air pressure.

Biosphere's two-towered "lungs" were an ingenious solution.  Each tower housed a ginormous metal disk, or membrane, that could rise or fall with the air pressure, relieving stress on the glass walls and keeping Biosphere 2's closed system intact.

These lungs also had a second vital function, which one day may also prove important to the Mars colonists: water collection.  At night, as Biosphere 2 cooled, water condensed on the huge membranes of the lung, filling a 200,000 gallon tank with clean water.  This stored water could then be used to fight fires or to replace moisture lost to evaporation within the various ecosystems.  In a closed system, both fire-fighting and drinking water are vital to survival.

What I found most interesting, however, had nothing to do with fire fighting, water or engineering.  The lung room is an awesome echo chamber!  I tried to convince my husband to sing a major triad in harmony with me, to create a chord that would reverberate thrillingly throughout the chamber, but my husband would have none of it.  He left me to sing alone, human lung to aluminum lung.

I want to go back with a choir!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Entering the Land of the Morlocks

Biosphere 2, Technosphere Hallway
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham
Our tour of Biosphere included a tour of the “Technosphere” - the 3.14 acres of ductwork, pipes and machinery which allow life within Biosphere 2 to breathe, get moisture, and in general survive.
As soon as I stepped through the door into the tunnel, I immediately thought of H.G. Wells, and started looking for dangerous little humanoids that were clever with machines but might want to eat me.

None appeared, and our guide seemed well-fed enough for me to continue the tour, despite my misgivings.

For the engineers among us, a few facts:

The technosphere includes 26 air handlers that can control moisture and humidity as well as oxygen and C02 levels, and of course heat or cool the air as required.

Having so much control over temperature and humidity allows scientists to discover what happens if a rainforest experiences several weeks of drought. They cannot control the ocean, but at the coral reef in Biosphere 2, they can study corals respond to increased levels of CO2 or higher water temperatures.

Our guide told us about an interesting experiment in the rainforest. The biome was flooded with CO2, and it turns out that increased CO2 levels don’t lead to more and more plant growth. Instead, there is an upper limit to how much carbon that plants can absorb and sequester - and it is possible for Earth to go beyond that limit.

Not only that, but other studies have shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide can actually reduce the nutrient value of important crops like rice and wheat.

Scary, huh?

"Biosphere 2 Gives Up Some of its Secrets" - an informative article about the technosphere from The Green Valley News.

Fast Facts - Biosphere 2.

More Carbon Dioxide in the Air Makes Some Crops Less Nutritious

Thursday, November 2, 2017

No Diversity - No Survival

The ocean & coral reef at Biosphere 2 - "the world’s biggest controlled marine research facility"
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham
How much of the world can you squeeze into 3.14 acres?  Biosphere managed to fit an ocean, a fog desert, a rainforest, a mangrove wetland, a savannah, and agricultural areas that included rice ponds with tilapia, vegetable gardens, and grain fields.  Not to mention living space for humans and a variety of agricultural animals including pigs, goats, and chickens.  An impressive microcosm of large, complex planetary systems.

The Rain Fog Desert at Biophere 2
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham

One detail particularly impressed me:  the planners included a fog desert specifically because the plants there are actively producing oxygen in winter, when flora in other biomes are dormant and not producing the oxygen we need to survive.  Suddenly, I realized why we need two hemispheres with winter in one and summer in the other, and how important it is that global weather patterns act like a planetary fan to mix all that oxygen up and move it around.

The Rain Forest at Biosphere 2
@2017 Tina Quinn Durham
The inhabitants of Biosphere 2 suffered a debilitating shortage of oxygen despite the careful planning that went into creating Biosphere when exposed concrete absorbed both carbon and oxygen.  There were other setback too, when the pollinating insects died and the cockroach and ant populations exploded.  Even their bodies had to adapt to a low-calorie, high-nutrient diet, and the Biospherans literally felt hungry for an entire year until their metabolisms adjusted.

We cannot predict what effect climate change and altered weather patterns might have on our larger biosphere.  We already know that bees are in trouble, and flying insect populations are decreasing.  How that will affect the quality of human life and the success of our food production remains to be seen.

However, one fact is painfully clear:  humanity cannot survive without biodiversity.  To live, to breathe, to have potable water and survivable weather conditions, we need diversity.  Everything matters from the smallest microbe to the largest apex predator.

We do not exist in isolation from Biosphere 1.


Wikipedia. “Biosphere 2.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Oct. 2017,