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Near Tucson, the Biosphere Lives On

By Deborah Tunney
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page E04


Biosphere 2 still looms large in the Arizona desert. Once a catastrophic science experiment of enormous proportions, later an unprecedented model for environmental research, it is now basically an unusual tourist attraction.

Built in the late '80s (funded at $150 million by Texas oil magnate Edward Bass), Biosphere 2 was designed as an airtight replica of Earth's environment (Biosphere 1), complete with a million-gallon ocean, rain forest, desert, agricultural areas and, infamously, a human habitat where in 1991 a colony of eight people set about to live for two years. It was an ambitious--some said audacious--attempt that would become a scientificsoap opera, with elements of "Gilligan's Island" and "Apollo 13" (as in, "Mission Control, we've got a problem.")

Life under glass went awry. The air turned short on oxygen and long on laughing gas (nitrous oxide). Crops failed. Animals died off. In Darwinian revenge, cockroaches and "crazy ants" proved fittest indeed. Then there were the tales of food hoarding and factionalizing among the Biospherians, who emerged at the end of the experiment . . . well, thin. By the time U.S. marshals intervened in 1994, the project had sunk to scientific disdain and public ridicule.

But in 1996, Columbia University took over Biosphere's management, shifting the focus to research and education. Though Biosphere's long-term standing remains to be seen, today, dozens of students attend "Earth Semesters" there. Research is ongoing, and Biosphere ranks as a top Arizona tourist attraction.

Guided tours are frequent. After viewing a video, visitors are led past demonstration areas and test modules before entering the incredible steel-and-glass structure that is the Biosphere. Inside, the high point is a peek at the human habitat, where visitors can sit at the very dining table the hungry Biospherians had once fantasized to be chocolate. A sample apartment still displays its former resident's paintings, a photo of a loved one and a few books. I'd read that the tour featured a quick gawk at a bathroom outfitted with water sprayers instead of toilet paper, but--tasteful move--Columbia seems to have eliminated that stop.

Gone are the sideshow days when the curious could peer in and see "actual" Biospherians. Throughout the tour, we're reminded--thou doth profess too much, perhaps--that there's important environmental research taking place. But scientific credibility isn't always scintillating viewing. A grove of trees looks a bit sick; a tank is green with algae.

In the giftshops, there's merchandise like Biosphere 2 shot glasses and rain forest trinkets. The Biosphere 2 snowglobe struck me as particularly apt.

Biosphere 2 (520-896-6200, is 30 minutes north of Tucson, less than two hours south of Phoenix, off Oracle Road/Highway 77 at Mile Marker 96.5. Admission is $12.95. The vicinity has a wide range of lodging options. The Biosphere Inn and Conference Center has large suites, quiet location and beautiful vistas ($95, 520-896-6222).

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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