There is a world under glass just north of Tucson. University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 is meant to mimic Earth but in a way that allows scientists to better understand how the Earth works.
It's a world of science you can see close up.
Just as Earth is a self-sustaining system, Biosphere 2 was originally built to be sealed and self-sustaining with plants creating food and oxygen for a small group of scientists inside. It could not quite sustain the group without outside air.
UA took over the facility years later. It does not run Biosphere 2 as a sealed system but does use its ability to duplicate and control Earth environments as a scientific tool like no other.
Biosphere is a tool, and a tourist attraction at the same time. Adult tickets are 20 dollars. Kids cost $13.
In Biosphere's rain forest, deputy director John Adams can call in a rainstorm.
We listened in as he called a control room on a two-way radio: “If you can just go ahead and give us a head's up that you're turning the rain on in the Northeast quadrant that'd be great."
That control helps scientists stress test the Earth with a precision they just can't achieve in the natural world and all its variables.
Adams says, “They can actually turn this rain off. And there are models that predict the tropics are going to get warmer and drier. Well, how do you do that? You can't turn the rain off in the rainforest and then look and observe what happens and turn it back on. Here inside Biosphere we can do that so out researchers, one of the experiments they've done is they subjected this rain forest and excess of 70 day drought to look at how the system as a whole responds; how it's partitioning the water resources and how that varies between the different plants we have in here but also how the community as a whole is responding."
Sun beating down on the glass enclosures heats and expands the air inside in the daytime. The air contracts when it cools down at night. The pressure change would be enough to break out the glass without Biosphere's lungs.
They are domes with large rubber membranes that move like a breathing lung.
You don't get much appreciation for the air pressure when you're actually inside one of the lungs. Things are calm in here. But when you step out into the other chamber, the strong blast of air gives you a much better appreciation for how much air is moving around.
But moving water is one of Biosphere's main tools.
UA added a special slope to measure water runoff. Instruments underneath measure how much water seeps in.
Biosphere's artificial ocean can help scientists learn more about how rising ocean temps bleach and kill coral reefs.
John Adams says, “If the reefs cease to exist not only do you significantly impact maybe as much as 25 percent of ocean organisms that rely on reefs for some of their life but now you start to impact geotourism, you impact a whole entire economy because if the reef is gone, there's no more fisheries, there's no more opportunities for people to come and view that amazing structure you find in these shallows."
And visitors can find their own insights into Earth and how its systems work together to sustain life.