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Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Bio-Dome was a stoner movie flop, but Biosphere 2 was a real experiment

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Jan 13, 2021, 3:07 PM EST (Updated)

Twenty-five years ago this week, one of the best-worst movies of all time hit theaters. Bio-Dome, starring Pauly Shore (Bud) and Stephen Baldwin (Doyle), follows two slack-jawed stoners as they find themselves accidentally sealed inside an experimental biosphere after mistaking it for a mall toilet.

Listen, no one promised you Citizen Kane. Bio-Dome is less for fans of high cinema, and more for fans of cinema... high.

After the pair mistake a rainforest for a restroom, they discover the facility has been locked down for a year: Earth Day to Earth Day. Their only companions are five scientists committed to finding a way to balance human existence with Earth's fragile environments. The dome itself is comprised of distinct ecosystems — a rainforest, a desert, an ocean, a fish pond — all serving some vital function. Of course, madness ensues. This was a Pauly Shore vehicle, after all.

Things pretty quickly fall out of balance, the dome loses homeostasis, and the domers have to find a way to right the ship. It probably didn't help that Bud and Doyle snuck out through an unlocked door in the desert, ordered some pizza, and threw an absolute rager. It's the sort of scenario that strains credulity, surely existing only within the celluloid frames of '90s slacker comedies, which makes it all the more bizarre that it actually (sort of) happened.

BIOSPHERE 2

Between 1987 and 1991, a complex series of geodesic buildings appeared in Oracle, Arizona. Inside: a rainforest, an ocean with coral reefs, wetlands, a fog desert, and grasslands, populated with 3,800 species — including eight humans.

The facility itself was an outcropping of the Synergist movement, a sort of scientific commune lifestyle with the goal of revolutionizing life on Earth. The facility was financed by businessman and environmentalist Ed Bass, who frequented Synergia Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before Biosphere 2 was conceived. Likewise, many of the original biospherians, as they would later be known, came from the group.

With $150 million in funding from Bass, they set to work building the bizarre-looking structure that would serve as a mini-Earth. There were hopes that the project would ultimately result in biospheres on the Moon and Mars. Instead, over the next two years, the project suffered a series of setbacks until it eventually shuttered.

Shortly after the experiment began, one of the biospherians, Jane Poynter, got a hand caught in a thresher. She was treated, the tip of a finger reattached by their in-house doctor, but she had to leave to seek further treatment. Upon return, she brought with her a duffel bag of supplies. This was the first crack in the biosphere's proverbial glass. Over the course of the experiment, supplies continued to make their way into the sphere, ending the notion of a sealed experiment.

This came to a head when oxygen content inside the biosphere dropped from 21 percent to 14.2 percent, and an investigation revealed that the concrete inside the structure was leaching gases out of the air. As a result, oxygen had to be artificially added to the environment, which kind of defeated the whole point.

By the end, in the words of Jane Poynter, all eight of the biospherians had gone mad. By many measures, the two-year experiment failed, but that doesn't mean we didn't learn from it.

LESSONS LEARNED

Most importantly, Biosphere 2 showed us the stark fragility of Earth's ecosystems. Entire species died out within the dome, including bees and hummingbirds. The team's inability to maintain homeostasis within the dome had drastic consequences. That said, the system didn't entirely collapse. Other species prevailed. A particular species of cockroach and a hitchhiking species of ant exploded in population, underscoring the way species adapt and fill niches leftover by the ones who don't survive.

The biosphere also made strides in advancing techniques for sealing structures. The oxygen levels inside did decrease, but that was due to the complex relationship between oxygen, carbon dioxide, soil, and concrete — not because air was leaking out. In fact, Biosphere 2 only lost about 10 percent of its atmosphere per year.

It also proved that relatively small groups of people could live together, in isolation, for extended periods of time with little or no contact with the outside world, and they could do so without totally breaking down. The biospherians did break into two factions and tensions were high, but they were collectively committed to the experiment. By all accounts, they didn't actively harm or sabotage one another or the work. Successfully navigating group relationships will be crucial for successful crewed missions to distant locales like Mars.

The biospherians were also able to successfully grow crops — enough to supply more than 80 percent of their food. The eight humans inside the dome all lost considerable weight but remained healthy. Granted, there were some emergency food stores inside the dome and the crew did rely on that when needed.

Some of the best knowledge came from the experiment's mistakes. The loss of oxygen and subsequent rise in CO2 inside Biosphere 2 closely mirrored that of atmospheric carbon concentrations today. When the CO2 spiked, corals in the million-gallon artificial ocean died off and algae took over.

As of 2019, the miniature ocean had been taken over by green algae with only a few fish surviving. Some scientists think it might be a good model for the future of reefs if current environmental trends continue. While the sealed experiments are over, Biosphere 2 is still home to science, including research on corals.

We might have learned a lot more from those early Biosphere 2 experiments, sadly though, much of the data from the original experiment was lost in subsequent management and ownership changes. The current owners, the University of Arizona, have stated they received no data archives when they inherited the site.

The original intent of Biosphere 2 was to investigate the complex ecological web present on Earth, and in that regard, it succeeded. However, rather than showcase our dominance over that web, Biosphere 2 revealed how truly tenuous it is and highlighted our responsibility in safeguarding the ecosystems in Biosphere 1 — which is, of course, Earth.

Viva los Bio-Dome!

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