Making a comeback

Photo courtesy of The University of Arizona-Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 – tucked 30 miles north of Oro Valley above the Catalina Mountains – is making a comeback after a series of ups and downs over the last 30 years.

Since the University of Arizona took over (in July 2007), the attraction has more than doubled its annual number of visitors, according to Matt Adamson, education/outreach coordinator. For fiscal year 2010-11, Biosphere 2 is trending toward 110,000 visitors, up from 35,000 during the facility’s skeletal operation days of 2003 to mid-2007.

Adamson is hoping strides in the exciting interactive experience between visitors and working scientists will help Biosphere 2 reach the 120,000-130,000 annual visitors level – a break-even point — which seems attainable. In non-scientific language, the interaction will enable guests to ask and get answers from B.A. seekers to PhD scientists to two key questions:

• What’s happening within this particular part of the complex?

• What does this mean for me in my daily living?

“That (research) first began with Columbia University (during its 1996-2003 watch) and continues under UofA leadership. Such interactions can be a real value-added experience for our visitors,” Adamson noted.

When completed later this year, the newest attraction will achieve the ultimate one-on-one experience. Construction on the Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, is expected to begin in late winter. The potential to build the instructional experiment was the primary reason UofA got involved with Biosphere 2, according to John Adams, assistant director for The University of Arizona-Biosphere 2.

The facility is creating an unprecedented experimental apparatus to predict how the water cycle responds to climate change. Each landscape is 40 feet wide, 100 feet long and nearly 20 feet tall. Each structure will weigh about two million pounds.

In the meantime, knowledgeable part-time tour guides, most of them with science or engineering backgrounds, lead the 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily under-the-glass tours of the existing facility.

Visitors should plan to spend at least 2½ hours examining the vast Biosphere 2 complex, Adamson said, including the 1¼-hour tour. Admission is $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 62 and older, and $13 for children 6-13 years old.

Time-Life Books called Biosphere 2 “one of the 50 must-see wonders of the world.” A specially designed mini-world, it is modeled on earth, the first biosphere. It has been called the world’s largest living science center, exploring the environment, plant and future.

In the early-1990s, visitors only could take outside tours, looking in where eight Biospherians spent two years in a study to determine if man could live in outer space. The final decision was no — and, along the way, the experiment was fraught with some problems. “Like any other science experiment,” Adamson said, “it wasn’t perfect.”

During Columbia University’s management of Biosphere 2, the research emphasis was on the environment, including effects of carbon dioxide on plants. The UofA currently focuses its efforts on water and energy.

“We’re looking at alternative energy sources on the cutting edge of science,” Adamson explained.

Back in the early 1980s, Texas billionaire Edward Bass made a $30-million gift to provide main funding for the 3.14-acre facility on the 40-acre campus. The size of three football fields, the facility has 6,500 windows comprising 7.2-million cubic feet of glass. Biosphere 2 is sealed from earth by a 500-ton stainless steel liner.

Three features of the six-ecosystems-under-glass facility, according to Adamson, continue to be visitor favorites:

Tropical rainforest

“Unusually heavy humidity and because it is so different to the rest of Arizona,” Adamson noted.

The ocean with coral reef

“One million gallons of water and so unusual here,” he added.

The lungs in the basement

“Their ‘breathing’ enables expansion and contraction of the inside atmosphere.”

The education aspect, especially with high school students and teachers, hopefully will revive once the current economic downturn ends, Adamson said.

Most recent Biosphere 2 programs have included residential summer camps, video conferencing with Australian schools, and hands-on seminars to increase teaching skills of math and science teachers.

For more information and to follow the construction of the new LEO exhibit, visit

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