Constructed between 1987 and 1991, Biosphere 2 was a research facility designed to imitate Earth's ecosystem. Its mission: to spend two years 'studying how a mini-biosphere—complete with wilderness areas, a farm and a group of humans—would work with as few outside inputs as possible.' The center remains open for the purposes of public education and scientific studies.
A major aspect of the experiment, however, was to explore how we might survive on other planets. Indeed, current research for artificial biospheres is largely confined to the domain of space exploration.
But with global warming and pollution on the rise, Earthlings may be forced, in extreme conditions, to construct artificial biospheres for their own planet. B1M, a video channel for construction, asserts that 'the demand for these enclosed environments could be closer than many imagine'.
According to B1M:
Artificial biospheres would enclose housing developments, commercial offices or even entire communities. They would be powered by renewable energy and feature state-of-the-art water and air filtration systems creating an optimal living environment in otherwise hostile conditions. Their structures would be formed from steel or timber, clad in glass or ETFE panels in some instances, while more advanced biospheres would be 3D printed from waste plastic.
At first glance, these biospheres might seem like the kind of structures that would be used in Star Trek. However, the idea of implementing them on Biosphere 1 – planet Earth – seems more suited to a dystopia than to the show's optimistic vision of the future. We would be driven to using them not out of scientific curiosity, but need, wrought by our own neglect of our planet.
Of course, unlike Biosphere 2, the artificial biospheres on Earth would offer the 'luxuries' of modern life – including clean air and a sanitized environment. Worryingly, these will not be new luxuries. Clean air is already being sold by the bottle in places (notably China) where pollution has skyrocketed to alarming levels.
They would, however, would only be a way to shield ourselves from a hostile environment – not a method to curb global warming. There will furthermore be complications beyond technical aspects. The existence of artificial biospheres raises some unsettling questions: Will they drive wedges in our already fractured society? More pressingly, will we become complacent and neglect our natural biosphere in our scramble to create human-made ones?
There are some who believe that artificial biospheres will be a regular part of our future. Others deem them unsustainable and argue that they will be accessible to only an elite few. Still others wonder what the true difference is between spending all your time inside a bubble and spending all your time inside a building. One thing is clear: most people consider the idea unsettling rather than wonderful.
Yet it is not all gloom. Mark Nelson, one of the participants in the Biosphere 2 study, remarks in his article: 'Today I remain optimistic that humans can solve the problems they cause. My optimism, in large degree, comes from my Biosphere 2 experience, which taught us every action, however small, is important.'
Biosphere 2 may have popularly been deemed a failure (whether justified or not) but it holds an important lesson for us: we must develop a deeper understanding of Earth's ecosystems if we are to find a way to maintain them. When its oxygen levels plummeted, Biosphere 2 had more pumped inside. For us, there will be no aid on standby.
With the correct steps, we will not need such aid. Mr. Nelson's ends his article on this optimistic note:
We are facing a species IQ test that will determine if humans can show the intelligence, resilience and adaptability to be a cooperative, creative part of our planetary biosphere—or whether we are headed to an evolutionary dead-end.
This is the exhilarating and yes, scary, challenge of our time. But we have allies. As we so unforgettably learned in Biosphere 2, we are all part of the biosphere, body and soul.
The biosphere is on our side.