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Life in a bubble

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WORLD Radio - Life in a bubble

Biosphere 2 was a science experiment that intended to prove humans could live in a closed system


Photo/Biosphere 2

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 26th.

We’re so glad you’ve turned to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Life inside a bubble.

In 1991, a science experiment in Arizona set out to prove that an enclosed ecological system could support human life in outer space. Eight researchers were sealed inside a futuristic glass complex, housing a few farm animals and several different ecosystems. Biosphere 2, as it was called, was modeled on Biosphere 1, planet Earth.

REICHARD: The experiment ended in 1993. Three decades later, the research facility is not only still standing, it’s also being used to crank out new ideas. WORLD’s Myrna Brown has the story.

ANCHORS: Four women and four men are spending their first night in Biosphere 2… tonight we put a fascinating look into our future… four men and four women set to begin a two-year-experiment and adventure…

MYRNA BROWN CORRESPONDENT: Lia Crocker wasn’t even born in 1991. That’s when five Americans, two Brits and one Belgian sealed themselves inside a 91-foot-tall glass bubble…the same bubble that is now Crocker’s 91-foot-tall, glass office.

LIA CROCKER I didn’t know about Biosphere 2 growing up. I learned about it in high school. So I came out to go to the University of Arizona because I was so intrigued by Biosphere 2.

The University of Arizona owns Biosphere 2 and prepares researchers like Crocker to study complex ecosystems: Things like oceans and coral reefs.

LIA CROCKER: So behind me there’s 700,000 gallons of water.

Crocker is standing at the edge of one of Biosphere 2’s seven ecosystems - the ocean. To the right, huge boulders. To the left, a wall of windows that allow bright beams of the Arizona sun to ricochet off the water’s surface. Crocker manages this man-made ocean and its coral reef.

LIA CROCKER: We have a model coral reef ecosystem here that has undergone a lot of stress and now we’re seeing how it can recover. And that will teach us a lot about how real ocean ecosystems can recover.

Reefs not only protect coastlines from erosion, they’re a source of food and provide research for new medicines. Part of this reef’s recovery process takes place inside a raceway room. Raceways are huge tubs that act as incubators for coral. They’re a cross between a fish tank and the ocean.

LIA CROCKER: We are learning a lot about what we can do to be good stewards of God’s creation. And in ways like what we’re doing with the coral reef here. We’re learning more about these creatures and what our relationship should be to each of them and living more like God intended I think.

Next to the ocean, a rainforest, nine stories high.

AUDIO: [RAIN]

That may sound like raindrops gently falling, but remember, this laboratory is completely sealed. The man behind the moisture is research specialist, Jason Deleeuw.

JASON: Because it’s so high and because it’s shaped like a pyramid so to speak, that allows us to control the atmosphere here. We can control the humidity. We can control the rainfall.

With the flip of a switch, Deleeuw is examining why certain plants tolerate higher temperatures and limited rainfall while others don’t. When he wants to know what’s happening at the root level, he simply lifts up a metal door that reaches 10 feet down.

JASON: And so we have four of these soil pits, going all the way down to the bottom of the soil to the concrete at the base there. And we’ve got sensors inserted along the wall here and that tells us how moisture moves through this soil. How does limited rainfall affect soil microbes? How does the availability of water down there change things?

About three football fields away from the rainforest, is the coastal fog desert.

JOHN ADAMS: That’s what’s incredible about Biosphere 2 and the engineering is that on one end we’re in the rainforest and right now we’re standing in the desert.

John Adams is Biosphere 2’s Deputy Director. He says while the two ecosystems are different, surprisingly, both share similar climate requirements.

JOHN: A Coastal Fog Desert is an area, if you were to drive from Southern Arizona work your way down to New Mexico, along the Baha Peninsula, a lot of the plants that you would encounter along that drive would be represented inside of here.

50,000 square feet of rocks, sand, and various species of cacti cover this part of Biosphere 2. Adams says out of all the ecosystems, the desert has produced the most innovative idea: How does a computer information center interact with an ecosystem?

JOHN: So, we all think of the cloud, we hear the cloud, right. Well the cloud is not someplace up in the sky. It’s a big data center. We were in discussions with a large software company and they were looking at potentially building a replicated data center in here to look at how the data center impacts the environment and how the environment impacts the data center.

Biosphere 2 is open to the public, and visitors like Cindy Hicks consider it a museum of sorts.

CINDY HICKS: I was here like 35 years ago when I was a teacher and they brought us all out here to investigate it. But you know, I came back.

Today, she’s introducing her 10-year-old grandson to words like biomes and ecosystems.

MYRNA TO JACK HICKS: When you first walked up. What did you think when you saw this place? I thought, well…. That’s big! (laughter)

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Myrna Brown in Oracle, Arizona.

REICHARD: If you want to see the rainforest and the desert biomes, Myrna produced a companion piece that also airs today on WORLD Watch. That’s our video news program for students. We’ll post a link to that story in today’s transcript.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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