Biosphere 1 does. At one time Earth had much more carbon dioxide than it has today although everybody gets alarmed if it goes up or down even a tiny bit.
Rebecca So, Biosphere 2 is a way to study those changes occurring in a more intensified and dramatic way.
John: Yes, it’s more dramatic. It’s what I call a time microscope. In a space microscope you see more space objects, whereas in a time microscope you see more events in a shorter amount of time. Amazingly few people have gotten that. It was the first expedition in time and we even carried an Explorer’s Club flag sent in recognition of the expedition.
Each biosphere has a different time, a different metabolic rate, and a different evolutionary history. The biospherians are within, in contrast to the usual expedition where people get into the plane or rocket which takes off somewhere else and leaves the crowd behind. A biosphere opens up and the people inside stay where they are – it’s the crowd that leaves.
The biospherians enter a new time machine. Interestingly, the aging tests that Roy Walford used, showed that the rate of aging decreased. How meaningful this is in two and a half years is hard to say, but at any rate it seems that the physiological time began to change for the people inside.
Rebecca Wasn’t there a problem with the oxygen levels where more oxygen had to be brought in from the outside?
John: People might call it a problem, but in an experiment you expect to find new things. Something came up with the oxygen that we didn’t predict, namely because the carbon dioxide was at a higher level of pressure and so more of it went into the concrete. Out here, at a level of 350 parts per million carbon dioxide, if you have concrete in a bridge not very much carbon dioxide goes into it, but the more you have of an element, the more it does whatever it does. So, as the carbon dioxide went up, more of it began to go into the concrete.
Also, carbon began to be oxydized in the soil and what that was doing was pulling oxygen out. We had to put a lot of carbon in the soil because we started out with the approach of successional ecology. We began with about 15 tons of biomass. When we reach a climax it will be about sixty tons, and right now it’s probably about thirty tons.
Rebecca Did the oxygen have to be pumped in because it was becoming difficult to breathe inside?
John: We pumped oxygen in at the first sign of difficulty for the humans, that the doctors caught. We ran an experiment with the consent of the biospherians. The scientific community that I consulted with on this said it would be very interesting and important to see what would happen. What is the lowest amount of oxygen that people can healthily live with? They called that `riding the curve down.’
So the biospherians kept us informed on their health and we also closely observed their behavior and measured changes in their blood, because in the experiments you get what’s called the heroic mode; everything becomes so important and so useful to humanity that a person might even kill themselves from excess enthusiasm. We also had medical tests and doctors checking blood, etc…All the submarine and space people were very interested in this because the less oxygen you have to put in say, a Mars base, you save immense amounts of money.
This was also especially interesting because as you go up a mountain oxygen drops, but so does everything else, like nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Here, everything else was staying at equal pressure, and only the oxygen was dropping. What we found was that people can go down to about forteen and a half per cent of oxygen and still perform, but they began to become sluggish at around seventeen per cent. So then we set the mission rules after that to be between 19 and 21 per cent.
Many people said that the biospherians experienced difficulty in breathing, but the oxygen could have gone in much earlier had that been true. Three of the Biospherians did use an oxygen sniffer during sleeping hours. It was an experiment. It was also interesting to see what plants would do with an oxygen decrease. We thought it might hurt their growth but we found that it probably increased it slightly.
Rebecca What did you discover are some of the qualities of a naturally occurring environment that were difficult to reproduce in Biosphere 2?
John: The biggest thing you get with increasing scale is more diversity and more what we call levels of trophic change – how many situations of `who eats who’. There’s a rough law in ecology that says, it takes ten times the biomass of one level to support the next level. For example, in the ocean the biggest fish we could have was about twelve inches long, whereas of course there are whales in Biosphere 1’s ocean. They basically were like Biosphere 1 systems with that exception. During the transition we added species in and thus built up a trophic level, but there will always be some total lesser diversity because of the scale.
Rebecca Were the ratios of the various species roughly equivalent to the ratios in which they exist outside?
John: Roughly. The coral reef was almost exactly in ratio to start with, but again the trophic pyramid would be truncated – it would have a limit; we couldn’t support an octopus or a shark for example. Also, in our rainforest the trees could only grow ninety feet tall whereas in the real rainforest they can grow up to 150 feet. So the species that are evolved to be a 100 feet or above, which is a lot of species, aren’t able to go in.
On the other hand, the agriculture in Biosphere 2 is more diverse than anything outside in any one system – there’s over 140 cultivars in there. Everything else is modeled on existing systems outside, but the agriculture is a synthesis of many different tropical agricultures that had a track record of hundreds of years of sustained reproducibility such as the Polynesian sweet potato.
Rebecca The Biosphere 2 project has had a number of ups and downs since its first inception. Looking back, what, if anything, would you have done differently?
John: Well, firstly I don’t think it did have ups and downs. It had media ups and downs, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that the media is anywhere near a valid representation of reality. Biosphere 2 was one of the most successful experiments that has ever been done. We set all kinds of world records: it was the first time there has been a 100% recycled closed system, it was the most tightly sealed system that ever was – thirty times tighter than the space shuttle, it was the first time for total water recycling.
It came very close to the biospheric hypothesis. Eight people went in, one person damaged the end of their finger, but all in all everyone’s health improved. In fact, it’s a very interesting question as to why the media presented the project as problem riddled when it was a straight-ahead accomplishment.
David: As a result of what you learned from the first two year project, what readjustments do you need to make and what new research questions have developed as a result which you will study for future projects?
John: Biosphere 2 represents an air ethic. We had a land ethic that was developed in the 1930’s, we had a water ethic with the clean water act, we’ve never had an air ethic. Biosphere 2 shows the way to do that with total measurement and effect of all the molecules in the air.
Neither the American people, nor any other people, have yet received a readout of what is in the air they breathe. That’s only the beginning of an air ethic. Again, the media didn’t report anything about this. But many questions have been raised like the differentiation of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and methane, just to name three. Why did these act differently and in reverse directions to Biosphere 1?
David: How did Margulis and Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis influence the project, and do you see the Biosphere 2 as being something like a baby Gaia?
John: That hypothesis didn’t influence Biosphere 2 at all because the Vernadsky hypothesis is not just the forerunner, it’s the hypothesis. But Lovelock’s and Margulis’ work influenced it. Lovelock studied the atmosphere with a device that could measure parts per trillion and showed these fine molecules there. Margulis’ work with microbes showed that they would increase their populations and eat these molecules. In other words, a mechanism by which the biosphere could maintain its equilibrium was found by Lovelock and Margulis.
The Gaia hypothesis is a cyclic hypothesis, it’s not a geological hypothesis. Vernadsky’s ideas are on a much larger scale and he describes biospheres as a cosmic phenomena. Any materially closed system with enough energy going through, will tend to cause a self-organizing system that releases the free energy – that’s the thermo-dynamic definition of the biosphere. Lovelock doesn’t work with that at all.
In the myth of Sisyphus it shows the man moving the stone up the hill where it falls back down, and then he moves it back up and on and on. The biosphere is a Sisyphus with an urge to move the stone up the hill – that is free energy – and the stone doesn’t fall down again. As long as the energy is coming through, it keeps moving it up the hill. The biosphere is increasing its ability to make the migration of matter. It is free energy increasing – it’s not cyclic.
David: It’s energetically and informationally open and chemically closed, right? Is there a life span to Biosphere 2?
John: We know for sure that it can go for as long as 3.8 billion years!
David: But the earth is