Strange Americana: Arizona's Biosphere 2 Has Surprising Ties to Quarantine Experiments
Located roughly 30 miles from Tucson, the old mining town of Oracle, Arizona, has an interesting history dating back to at least the 1870s. When gold and silver were discovered in the area, a mining community started to flourish, and, a few years later, Oracle’s Acadia Ranch became the premier retreat for folks with tuberculosis. Buffalo Bill Cody, who owned the High Jinks Gold Mine for a time and dressed up as Santa Claus in 1911 to surprise the children of the town, even has ties to Oracle. These days, it’s a bedroom community for nearby Tucson, but, mining history aside, what really puts Oracle on the map for roadtrippers is Biosphere 2.
If you thought Nevada and New Mexico were the only states with ties to the interstellar, think again. Built between 1987 and 1991 as an Earth system science research facility, Biosphere 2 has provided researchers with a place to learn about Earth, its living systems and the planet’s place in the universe. At 3.14 acres, the structure remains the largest closed ecological system, or vivarium, ever created. All of that is neat, but what makes it strange is that one of the facility’s most notable purposes was to help determine how viable closed biospheres would be in future space-colonization efforts. Of course, before the system could be brought to the "final frontier," it had to be tested in Arizona and, in the ‘90s, that’s just what happened.
How and Why Was Biosphere 2 Created?
If there’s a Biosphere 2, there must be a Biosphere 1, right? According to the facility’s creators, the first biosphere is Earth itself, which means the various biomes within the giant geodesic domes and pyramids are meant to replicate our planet’s ecological functions. Launched in 1984, the Biosphere 2 project was funded by businessman-turned-philanthropist Ed Bass and helmed by systems ecologist John P. Allen. The two met in the ‘70s at a counterculture community called Synergia Ranch and found themselves intrigued by the "Spaceship Earth" concept.
Inside Biosphere 2: The Quarantine Experiments of the 1990s
Inside Biosphere 2, there are seven distinct biome areas, including a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert and a 9,100-square-foot "ocean" complete with coral reef. There were also two anthropogenic biomes: an agricultural system and a human habitat full of living spaces and laboratories. Below ground is all the infrastructure, from piping to onsite natural gas and other resources. Needless to say, it’s all extremely thorough — and, yes, it does sound like something out of a movie. Even more sci-fi plot-adjacent? The experiments that occurred in the facility.
The Future (and Present) of Biosphere 2
After extensive improvements to the facility were completed, a second 10-month mission began on March 6, 1994. While the second crew — made up of Norberto Alvarez-Romo (Capt.), John Druitt, Matt Finn, Pascale Maslin, Charlotte Godfrey, Rodrigo Romo and Tilak Mahato — had better luck when it came to food production, a dispute led to a surprising involvement and even more qualms.