Eight go mad in Arizona: how a lockdown experiment went horribly wrong

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For months during the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have spent the majority of our time in our homes. Though challenging, we have still had internet, food deliveries, and access to the outside world. In the early 90s, however, scientists performed a two-year lockdown experiment that didn’t have any of those things, and according to some, it ended in a complete disaster. (1)

Two-Year Lockdown Experiment Gone Wrong

The Biosphere 2 experiment occurred between 1991 to 1993. In this lockdown experiment, eight men and women volunteered to live inside a glass house meant to replicate the Earth’s ecosystems. They were to live there for two years without ever leaving. (1)

The Goal of Biosphere 2

There were a few goals that the researchers hoped to achieve during the two years that the volunteers were living in Biosphere 2 (2):

  • Studying how a mini-biosphere would work with minimal outside inputs
  • Education
  • Eco-technology development
  • Help NASA and other space agencies learn more about life-support for long-term space missions

Though they did complete the full two years inside Biosphere 2, the experiment is considered by most to be a complete failure. Why? Well, in short, the biospherians – the eight people living in the biosphere – ran out of food and nearly oxygen. (1)

The Origins of the Lockdown Experiment

The actual origins of the Biosphere 2 are years before in the late 60s in San Francisco. John P. Allen, a Harvard graduate who was traveling and studying indigenous cultures, among other things, discovered an idealistic performance group called The Theatre of All Possibilities. (1)

This group wanted to impact change but didn’t know where to start, so they decided instead to try and tackle everything at once (1): 

  • Art
  • Business
  • Technology
  • Ecology

They built Synergia Ranch, a self-sufficient homestead, in New Mexico and lived there for some time. The group then built a still operational art gallery in London, England, along with another ranch in Australia. In 1975 they built a ship and sailed around the world for many years while researching the Earth’s various ecosystems. (1)

After all of this, they were ready to build their own Earth replica. Funded by billionaire Ed Bass, they built Biosphere 2. (1) The $150 million facility consisted of (1, 2):

  • Forests
  • Deserts
  • Laboratories
  • Recycling systems
  • Pigs
  • Chickens
  • Hummingbirds
  • Bushbabies
  • A coral reef
  • A 150-foot “ocean”

Four men and four women, clad in sci-fi-looking red jumpsuits, went inside, not to come out for two years.(1)

Problems From the Start

The biospherians included a marine biologist, a botanist, and a physician. It was a huge undertaking. Each biome needed specific temperatures, air currents, rainfall, etc to mimic the natural world. No chemicals were allowed, including chemical deodorants and cleaning products. Fires were forbidden, not even birthday candles. (2)

The biospherians had several tasks to busy their days, including (2):

  • Farming (both plant and livestock)
  • Cooking
  • Lab work
  • Biome management

None of the volunteers, however, had any farming experience. Quickly they learned how long certain items take to grow. Hunger was an issue early on in the lockdown experiment. Though their land was some of the most productive in the world, rationing was important and the biospherians were constantly in a state of what their doctor called “healthy starvation”. Not surprisingly, they all lost quite a lot of weight. (2)

The Human Problems

They were able to occasionally communicate with friends and family via the telephone or through a window, but otherwise, it was just the eight volunteers together the majority of the time. (2)

As oxygen levels dropped (at their lowest they reached 14.1% compared to the outside world’s 21%) and hunger continued, the crew became agitated and morale fell. (1) The group eventually split into two groups of four: One that wanted management to stay and the project to continue as it was, and another who wanted changes. (2)

The animosity between the two groups was so high that some crew even said they were spat on twice by members of the opposing side. (1)

The Oxygen Problem

When oxygen levels began to reach dangerously low (the equivalent of living at 15,000 feet in elevation), something had to be done. Altitude sickness and sleep apnea were rampant, and crew members were unable to complete even simple addition. It was then that pure oxygen was pumped into Biosphere 2. (1)

Finally able to breathe property, the biospherians began running around laughing almost manically. (2)

Return to the Real World

After spending two years in the biosphere growing all of their own food with no waste and no pollutants, returning to the real world was rather jarring for them. They struggled to deal with air pollution, trash, and not knowing where all of their food was grown. (2)

“Everything you did, you could see the impact of it. No anonymous actions. It was like my body suddenly got the message: every time you breathe, these plants are waiting for your CO2. They are your third lung. I thought, ‘My God, this is keeping me alive! I am absolutely metabolically connected to the life here.’” Mark Nelson, one of the biospherians, recalls about life in Biosphere 2. (1)

Was The Lockdown Experiment A True Failure?

The media largely claimed that the lockdown experiment was a failure, primarily because of the need to have emergency oxygen and food supplied. The biospherians, however, have a different take on it. (2)

“Biosphere 2, the greatest experiment ever conducted in ecological self-organization, revolutionized the field of experimental ecology. We proved that a sealed ecosystem can work for years, a lesson Mars colony planners can build on learned lessons to help keep stressed reefs alive and how to protect rainforests. We worked with our green allies to keep CO2 from getting too high. Our farm showed that high productivity and full nutrient recycling could be done without toxic chemicals.” wrote Nelson. (2)

The Biosphere Today

You can still visit Biosphere 2, however, it is now a center for education, research, and scientific discovery. They want to promote life-long learning about the Earth, its systems, and its place in the larger universe. (3) You can purchase tickets to visit Biosphere 2 or you can support its mission by donating here.

Keep Reading: This Scientist Created a Replica of Her Body to Correct Human Flaws (And It’s Honestly Kinda Creepy)

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