The plot begins in the late 1980s, when the original owner, Texas oilman Ed Bass, spent $150 million to create a model of the first biosphere (Earth) near Tucson, Arizona. When it was completed, the facility became a controversial and broad experiment in hermetically sealed, self-sustained living with the aim of revealing how humans might fare on space colonies. Eight human “biospherians” lived inside the structure for two years, from 1991 to 1993. After most crops failed, the team lived on emergency rations from outside the bubble until a depleting oxygen supply brought the experiment to a halt. “Basically, we suffocated, starved, and went mad,” said biospherian Jane Poynter in 2003.
After the scientific community roundly criticized the experiment, the Biosphere 2 owners transferred management to Columbia University, which used the complex for climate research and as an odd “study abroad” destination for students until 2003, when they abruptly pulled out of the deal. For the last four years, the gleaming domes and glass walls of Biosphere 2 have been little more than a roadside attraction for tourists in Tucson. Recent visitors saw the immaculate shell of a giant living experiment, one of the most spectacular ghost labs in the world. In 2005, the owners put the site up for sale.
In June, the real estate developers CDO Ranching & Development bought the 3.14-acre terrarium and 1,650 acres around it for $50 million, with plans to build luxury homes and a resort hotel. That doesn’t mean there will be brunch buffets in the biomes anytime soon, says Joaquin Ruiz at the University of Arizona. As part of the deal, the glass walls will become part of a minicampus for the university’s new Biosphere 2 ecology program. It’s even possible that big, credible science might come out of the giant terrarium yet. “The scale of Biosphere 2 allows us to do experiments that cannot be done anywhere else in the world,” Ruiz says.