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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

The secret history of Biosphere 2 | terrestrial

Biosphere 2
Flickr Photo/lance_mountain (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)/
Biosphere 2

What if you looked at the world around you, saw where things are headed on this planet and said to yourself, you know what? I want to start fresh.

A group of scientists did just that — but things didn’t go as planned.

In the 1990s, a group of researchers and visionaries built the the largest closed ecologically engineered system ever made and shut themselves inside it for years at a time — all in the name of trying to understand how the systems that make up life on Earth fit together.

The researchers hoped the project would help protect our environment, and if needed, prepare us for colonizing other planets. They called it Biosphere 2 (Earth being the original biosphere). 

This new world contained all the elements of the world outside: ocean, farmland, savannah, rainforest; pygmy goats from Nigeria, corals from the Yucatan.

But underneath this new planet, instead of dirt, there was a laboratory outfitted with sensors to measure everything up above including nitrogen levels in the soil and oxygen levels in the atmosphere.

In March 1991, eight people embarked on the first two-year experiment inside the dome. They called it “the first mission.”

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Life on the inside was exciting and tremendously challenging, according to the first crew of scientists who lived in the biosphere. Keeping all the ecosystems going and feeding eight crew members with what you could grow — with zero help from the outside — wasn’t easy.

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It wasn’t long before all those ideas started to be challenged. Systems within the biosphere failed and pressure from the financiers of the project on the outside mounted.

Then a man named Steve Bannon got involved.

“It was shut down by power and money. It was shut down by guns. It was shut down by a takeover that destroyed it,” Abigail “Gaie” Ailing, one of the biospherians, remembers.

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