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Columbia’s Brief Time with Biosphere 2

Illustration by Britt Fossum

Illustration by Britt Fossum

In the March issue of The Blue and White—on-campus and online now—now, Britt Fossum, CC ’16, tells us about some crazy desert science stuff Columbia used to be into.

“The strange part was the rationale for construction in the first place,” admits Dr. Nicholas Christie-Blick of Columbia’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, describing the glassy geodesic domes in Oracle, Arizona that rise out of the desert like something from a science fiction dream. Originally, the center—named Biosphere 2 after Biosphere 1 (the Earth)—was used for environmental research. The original experiments aimed to examine how humans interact with ecology by “enclosing” teams inside the domes for up to two years. The mission’s novel combination of field work and Survivor-style reality show was beset by invasive ants, illness, and allegations of pseudoscience, as it emerged that the researchers could not survive without outside interference.

After two such experiments returned absolutely no tangible results, the owner Edward Bass offered the structure to Columbia University in an attempt to redeem his project. The University officially acquired the center in 1993 on behalf of its Earth Science department and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and began offering undergraduates the chance to complete an Earth Semester at the Biosphere. An interdisciplinary immersion in biology and environmental studies, projects took place both in the surrounding desert and “under the glass.” Geologist Dr. Ann Holmes, a former Biosphere 2 faculty member now at the University of Tennessee, describes the undertaking with romantic nostalgia. “We were raising a new generation of Renaissance men and women” over the course of each semester-long project, she recalled. With an undergraduate involvement of nearly 350 students, 15-30 research and faculty members, and a fifteen year expansion plan, the program seemed to have a viable future.

On this flawed foundation Columbia managed to produce bits of science and environmental policy from researchers, “policy wonks,” and a desert ecologist affiliated with the center since the earliest missions. Dr. Holmes emphasizes that their unique approach filled an important gap in educational opportunities, arguing that “to solve some of the more complex problems Earth and humans face, we needed people who could work across discipline boundaries.”

However, according to Dr. Christie-Blick, “the research facility was too costly to run, and didn’t attract large grants in the way anticipated at the outset.” In 2003, after a decade of involvement, Columbia’s affiliation with the center ended.

Although the Biosphere now opens only as a museum, Dr. Holmes remembers it fondly: “After Columbia closed the program down, we all often said that if one of us won the lottery we’d build another.”

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  • Blunts in Butler says:

    @Blunts in Butler Bummer. I’ve always wanted to go to a desert under glass. Trippy as fuck.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum The article implies that Columbia owned Biosphere 2. It never did. CU ran the facility under a contract with its owners. The contract gave CU an option to buy the facility and its land for a very low price — low enough that it likely would have been profitable to dismantle the domes and develop the land. I’m not sure why CU didn’t exercise that option. It may have hoped another institution would step in and continue using the facility for teaching and/or research. It may also have hoped not to further alienate the Bass family.

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