Touring Biosphere 2: Where Science Lives
Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to live in an enclosed, self sufficient environment for years? The answer lies in a facility north of Tucson, Arizona. Biosphere 2 was unlike any attraction we’ve visited. Its claim as “where science lives” was enough to convince my husband (the science geek) to plan an afternoon visit here last weekend while we were in town. Beyond the steel and glass complex lies an interesting history and endless possibilities as a research facility.
Biosphere 2 was in the forefront of research and news in 1991 when eight people lived inside this complex for two years. It was an experiment to live in a self-sustained setting in an enclosed and controlled environment. Scientists hoped that this mission would hopefully be used in outer space someday. The “biospherians” grew all their own food and air and water was recycled on this 3 acre area.
It was an important study of survival and sustainability in a manufactured but enclosed environment. Another group went inside in 1994 but only lasted a few months. The missions were controversial. Some called it an utter failure while some called it a success – depending on which side you were on. It is now an earth science facility for the University of Arizona. If you’re wondering (like I was), Biosphere 1 is Earth.
Biosphere 2 is considered one of the world’s largest greenhouse that cost over $150 million to build in the late 1980s. At its prime, it contained living things from five natural biomes with over 1,000 species of plants and animals. These varied and controlled ecosystems were the ocean, tropical rainforest, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, and fog desert. It is still considered the world’s largest living science center. The facility is enclosed in over 6,500 windows.
Our Biosphere 2 Tour
The best way to see Biosphere 2 is through the scheduled guided tours. Tours last between 60-90 minutes depending on the number of people asking questions and the tour guide. The facility is now an open system and animals and crops were removed. The biomes are still intact, for the most part, for research. We started our tour with a 12-minute movie on how this facility was created and its main purpose. It was a huge undertaking and quite an engineering marvel to put this complex together and maintain it.
Our first stop inside the glass-enclosed facility was the 676,000 gallon saltwater tank built to simulate the ocean. What a pleasant surprise to find an ocean in the middle of the desert.
This was originally designed as a coral reef but currently being re-designed to emulate the Gulf of California. There was an underground ocean visitor’s gallery which was closed during our visit. One of their fascinating projects was studying some micro-organisms that can feed on the plastics found polluting the ocean.
There was a small waterfall we could barely see. At least, it felt like we were actually in the tropics with the temperature and plants that surrounded us and the sound of water flowing.
This was the pathway that passed through the desert biome. This environment was meant to be similar to a coastal fog desert found in the Baja Peninsula by the Pacific Ocean and unlike the Arizona desert outside. This desert type gets its water from the ocean fog rolling in and not from the rain.
My husband was so fascinated with the basement full of wirings, tanks and pipes called the “Technosphere”. This area housed the plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems that controlled the environment inside the sphere. There are units called air handlers that remove air particles, heat/cool air, control humidity or produce rain and fog. This was probably the area when many kids begin to lose attention like mine did. They thought the best part here was standing in front of a large fan.
Two of the Biosphere’s prominent structures were the white domes called “the lungs”. It was connected to the main structures through tunnels. This state-of-the-art system helped balance the air within the sphere and control the air pressure. We felt the immense pressure release when the door opened.
We also saw the Energy Center complex which are the arched buildings and towers. This controls the Biosphere’s power and regulates the conditions and environment for the biomes and its organisms to exist.
It was great to see that the facility was also doing things outside the Biosphere. We passed by these structures called Falaj which was a project for the government of Oman. Falaj were used to tap into the underground water from the mountains and used to bring it to the villages.
The newest structures here were these new buildings that will contain three landscapes inside an “environmentally controlled greenhouse facility” called the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) project. The LEO project will be studying various Earth science like changes to the earth’s landscape with climate changes and how biological systems change landscapes.
Our tour ended in the areas where the original scientists lived. I can’t even imagine living in an enclosed environment like this and be self-sustaining for two years. I guess it was all in the name of science.
These were some of the log books the scientists kept including their duties and things to pass time. If you read the description, they had to do things like rub baby oil on piglets to soften its skin. You’ve got to admire all that dedication.
Biosphere 2 with Kids
I think your experience here is largely affected by the draw of the tour guides. We didn’t have a very lively guy, and he was hard to sometimes understand. My kids would have probably gotten a lot more from the tour if they were on a fieldtrip or with interactive stations on a self-guided tour. They did have some hands-on exhibits afterwards that they enjoyed doing.
I wouldn’t recommend going here with active toddlers. My 11-year-old daughter is somewhat of a science enthusiast and she was bored with some parts of the tour. My 8-year-old son started getting antsy halfway through. It is hard to capture kids’ attention for over an hour without involving them in the process or unless they’re really into science.
Biosphere 2 was an interesting look at science and history. It’s a unique facility with a lot of potential. My husband and I enjoyed learning the history of the biospherians and seeing remnants of this complex’s original purpose. I had hoped they would focus more on the original mission but that wasn’t the case. Though, it’s nice to know that it is still being used extensively as a research facility to understand life on Earth. If you’re in the Tucson area and interested in science and engineering, then this is a good place to spend a couple of hours.
Admission: $20 ($18 for over 62 yrs); Kids 6-12 yrs old ($13); AAA discounts are available. Check your hotel for Biospher 2 brochures with $2 coupon.
No food or drinks allowed during the tour except for water.
Use the restrooms before the tour. No facilities anywhere nearby during the tour.
Wear comfortable shoes. There is a 10 minute walk from the ticket/visitor center to the Biosphere buildings. Some surfaces are uneven and there will be going up abou 150 steps and a bit of walking in some narrow passages including the tunnel.
No strollers, prams or backpack child carriers are allowed. Kids need to be carried in the front of the parent.
There is a cafe on the premises for those needing some snacks or a quick meal.
Check the Biosphere 2 website for the latest events or to buy tickets online.
*Have you visited Biosphere 2?
Pin it for later!