Want to see a rainforest and ocean in the desert? Time to head to the barren desert hills of Arizona, or should I say mountains! Located at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Oracle, Arizona, Biosphere 2‘s striking white outline and unusually shaped, futuristic buildings catch the eye. Recently named one of the top fifty “Wonders of the World”, which must be seen, this is an informative stop.
Biosphere is defined as: the regions of the Earth’s crust and atmosphere occupied by living matter. Therefore, it seemed fitting to name this man-made earth model Biosphere 2. Here is the world’s largest glass covered ecological laboratory located on forty acres. Back in 1984, Edward Bass, an environmentalist, contributed $150 million to build John Allen’s invention – Biosphere 2.
Originally built to experiment with self-contained settlement, those first eight ecologists, four men and four women, signed up for a two year term, then sealed themselves away. They began raising their own food and recycling air and water. Their goal was to be able to sustain all their needs from the five different ecological regions that were located inside the domes. These early designers were interested in space colonization and were looking for a way to build a similar system on Mars or perhaps the Moon.
The experiment, however, basically failed after almost two years due to the build up of noxious gases, and lack of oxygen. While some of the four thousand species survived, water and crops failed. However, much was learned scientifically as well as socially where disagreements caused lack of co-operation. Columbia University operated it up until just recently, but today it is maintained and used for experimentation by the University of Arizona.
Not only is it an experiment station, but also a unique spot where visitors can view, on an inside tour, five different ecosystems: rainforest, grasslands, desert, wetlands and ocean floor. The rainforest is the largest and tallest biome represented. It contains a number of different habitats, including a lowland forest, a flood plain, and a cloud forest on top of a sandstone mountain.
Savanna Grasslands is naturally dominated by various types of grasses, but there is a quartzite slope in the area where the stream waterfall is located. The Thornscrub section is the wilderness area. Most of the plants in this region are from the Sonoran area. Vegetation consists mainly of short trees and shrubs with many of them being thorny.
The desert biome has over 125 species of plants and was originally designed to replicate a coastal fog desert such as those found along the western coasts of Baja, California. This allows the Biosphere 2 desert to co-exist with the other, more moist biomes.
The Marsh biome begins with a fresh water lake with a transitional marsh leading to the Mangrove wetlands. Here over five hundred large mangrove trees dominate the wetlands, which is colonized by many marsh creatures such as crawfish, snails, sponges, and shrimp.
The ocean biome, designed to simulate a Caribbean reef, contains a coral reef and over one million gallons of salt water. A forty foot cliff overlooks the tropical ocean where waves, temperature and chemical balance are all carefully monitored and controlled by innovative technology. This allows scientists to conduct groundbreaking research. But the ocean biome is very efficient at recycling nutrients, so mainly mechanical means will be used in the future to attempt to control the environment here.
Today their largest project is the Landscape Evolution Observatory where they are exploring the secrets of earth’s landscape and how it changes due to climate and water movement, as well as modifications through biological systems. Edward Bass continues to be a major supporter and last year donated another $20 million to support operations and research. This is the premiere place for learning about Earth and its place in the Universe…now and in the future. Biosphere 2 is where science lives.
Getting there depends on where you are beginning! If you are in Phoenix, find your way to Biosphere 2 off I-35 exit 185. Continue East of 187 toward Florence where you will turn right or south on Arizona 79. Turn left on Arizona 77 until you arrive at Oriocle Junction where you turn left on Biosphere Road. If you are in Tucson, take Arizona 77 north about 24 miles.