© CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona
© CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona

How Living Inside Biosphere 2 Changed These Scientists' Lives

© CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona
© CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona

Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter witnessed the most affecting solar eclipse of their lives in 1992. That's because as they watched the Sun disappear behind the Moon’s shadow, they were also watching their oxygen supplies slipping away.

At the time, they and their six teammates were sealed inside Biosphere 2, a 91-foot-tall, 3.14-acre experimental complex outside Tucson, Arizona. “We were all just glued to the monitors,” MacCallum recalls, “because you can see when the Sun was hidden away by the Moon, for that half hour period, the CO2 started going up. The oxygen started going down. You could see the actual, palpable effect.”

Without the Sun, the plants around them had stopped photosynthesizing and producing oxygen. Earth’s atmosphere is so huge that half an hour of this during a solar eclipse doesn’t have a noticeable effect. But inside an atmosphere 19 trillion times smaller than Earth’s, MacCallum and Poynter noticed.

“It's very hard on the Earth to get that tight a visceral connection between your behavior and the environment,” MacCallum says.

Today, the imposing white dome of Biosphere 2 still rises above the Arizona desert like a cross between a greenhouse and the Taj Mahal. Now, it’s a research station maintained by the University of Arizona where researchers study Earth processes, global environmental change, weathering, landscape evolution, and the effect of drought on rainforests, among many projects. Because of its systems and size, scientists can do controlled experimentation at an unprecedented scale in Biosphere 2.

Another view of Biosphere 2. Image credit: © CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona

MacCallum and Poynter returned to Biosphere 2 in May 2016 for the One Young World Environmental Summit to speak to young environmental leaders from around the world. But in the early 1990s, they and six others were sealed inside it for two years and 20 minutes, from September 26, 1991 to September 26, 1993, in a life-changing experiment that was equal parts humility and hubris—both shortsighted and ahead of its time.

“The big questions of the two-year mission,” says MacCallum, were, “Can we build artificial biospheres? Can these be objects of science? Can we learn from them?”

We could and did. As a result of their voluntary containment, we learned how to seal a giant building so that it loses less air than the International Space Station, manage damaged coral reefs, feed eight people on a half-acre of land, and recycle water and human waste in a closed system, among other things.

The structure itself, built from 1987 to 1991, is a technological marvel even today. The idea was to build a miniaturized biosphere completely separated from Earth, see if humans could live inside it, and see how they affected the animals and plants around them and vice versa. (Why call it Biosphere 2? Because Earth is Biosphere 1.) It’s roughly as tightly sealed as the space station and separated from the soil around it by a 500-ton steel liner.

In the early '90s, when the mission started, the ideas that humans were causing climate change or even that Earth was a biosphere at all were much less accepted than they are today. “When we started this project, I was spelling the word ‘biosphere’ down the phone,” says MacCallum.

Much the way a botanical garden's conservatory is, Biosphere 2’s glass-walled domes and pyramids were filled with different biomes: rainforest, ocean (with a coral reef), savannah, desert, mangrove swamp, and agricultural fields in which the team grew all their crops. They ate so many sweet potatoes that Poynter turned orange, but their world also included domestic animals: goats (their only dairy source), chickens, pigs, and tilapia. They had only enough coffee plants to make one cup of coffee per person every few weeks.

The desert biome in Biosphere 2. Image credit: © CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona

Problems quickly developed. The coral reef became overgrown with algae. Most of the pollinating insects died. A bush baby in the rainforest biome got into the wiring and was electrocuted. Each of the crew members had a primary job: Poynter was in charge of the farm and farm equipment, and MacCallum was in charge of the analytical chemistry lab inside Biosphere 2. The crew had to do all their research, farming, and experiments while hungry because they weren’t getting enough calories.

More dangerous was the decline in oxygen. That night in 1992, their oxygen levels dipped temporarily, but overall their oxygen levels declined from 20.9 percent to 14.5 percent. (Any environment below 19.5 percent oxygen is defined as oxygen-deficient by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.) The low oxygen made them lethargic. For months they couldn’t sleep properly because it gave them sleep apnea. Scientists were monitoring them and communicating with them from the outside, and finally in August 1993, just a month before the crew left Biosphere 2, they decided to start pumping in oxygen.

Taber MacCallum tests air conditions in Biosphere 2. Image credit: © CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona

Later, scientists figured out that the culprits were microbes proliferating in the Biosphere’s compost-rich soil, combined with the building’s concrete. The microbes themselves were not harmful, but they converted oxygen into carbon dioxide, which then reacted with the building’s concrete to form calcium carbonate and irreversibly remove oxygen molecules from the Biosphere's atmosphere.

Still, looking back more than two decades years later, MacCallum and Poynter view the experiment as a success. Its initial science findings have been developed on in the years since—the University of Arizona has owned the facility since 2007—and its research focus remains as big picture as it ever was: global environmental change.

Beyond the science, even just seeing Biosphere 2 could change people’s perspectives. Poynter recalls getting an email while she was inside Biosphere 2 from a man who walked around the perimeter of the structure as part of the monitoring effort, who said, “'I get it now, because I walked around Biosphere 2, this miniature version of planet Earth, and it smacked me in the face: you guys only have what you have in there, and you have nothing else.'”

“That is fundamentally the message: that it's finite,” Poynter says. “And also very resilient.”

When after two years they finally emerged, Poynter had lost virtually all the enzymes to digest meat from eating so little of it. Nevertheless, she says, “Physically, we were in pretty decent shape. I had spent every day farming, so I was pretty strong.”

Jane Poynter checks on the goats in Biosphere 2. Image credit: © CDO courtesy of the University of Arizona

Still, it was a huge change. “The experience of coming out of Biosphere 2 was amazing in that it was like being reborn into this world and seeing it with fresh eyes,” she recalls. That night they had a big party with friends they hadn’t seen in two years. “And then the next morning there was this giant pile of garbage. It was this stark reminder of this consumable world that we live in.”

Poynter and MacCallum, who were dating when they entered Biosphere 2, married nine months after leaving it. Together with three others, they formed Paragon Space Development Corporation. Over the years, they developed a range of aerospace technology, including temperature control and life support systems for NASA and SpaceX that could be used to support people on the Moon or on Mars.

Their current company, World View Enterprises, spun out of Paragon in 2013. Key staff include chief scientist Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and astronaut Mark Kelly (twin brother of astronaut Scott Kelly), who is the director of flight crew operations. World View sends uncrewed vehicles high up in the near-space stratosphere to research weather and other phenomena, and aims to one day bring people up to where the sky is black, the Earth looks curved, and it’s visibly clear that Earth is the home we share.

The curvature of the Earth as captured by a World View craft. Image credit: World View

It's that big-picture view that Poynter and MacCallum want to share with others. After talking with astronauts, they think that the “overview effect” astronauts feel when seeing the Earth from space is not unlike what they felt in Biosphere 2. Like Poynter and MacCallum, astronauts describe feeling deeply moved by the experience to do something to help Earth and its people.

Poynter says the company’s technology is proprietary and has to do with buoyancy control. “The basis of it is our ability to do very accurate altitude control,” she says, which allows their vehicles to take advantage of prevailing winds at different altitudes to travel exactly where they want.

World View Enterprises is particularly interested in taking leaders and influencers up to the stratosphere. Because you can’t just lock world leaders inside a biosphere in the desert for two years to give them the insight that Poynter and MacCallum know so deeply: We, as humans, are fully connected to and dependent on our environment.

“In the biosphere," Poynter says, "I really fell in love with the Earth."

Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ancient Poop Contains First Evidence of Parasites Described by Hippocrates
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati
Department Of Classics, University Of Cincinnati

The long-held mystery of Hippocrates and the parasitic worms has finally been solved, and it’s all thanks to a few samples of ancient poop.

Researchers don’t know much about the parasites that plagued the Greeks thousands of years ago, and what they do know is largely from the Hippocratic Corpus, the medical texts that the father of medicine and his students put together between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Modern historians have spent years trying to figure out which diseases and parasites Hippocrates and his followers were referring to in their writing, relying solely on their descriptions to guess at what ailments the ancient Greeks might have suffered from. Now, they finally have concrete evidence of the existence of some of the intestinal worms Hippocrates mentioned, Helmins strongyle and Ascaris.

As part of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, an international group of researchers analyzed the ancient remains of feces in 25 prehistoric burials on the Greek island of Kea to determine what parasites the people were carrying when they died. Using microscopes, they looked at the soil (formed by the decomposed poop) found on the pelvic bones of skeletons dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze, and Roman periods.

A roundworm egg under the microscope
A roundworm egg

Around 16 percent of the burials they studied contained evidence of parasites. In these ancient fecal samples, they found the eggs of two different parasitic species. In the soil taken from the skeletons dating back to the Neolithic period, they found whipworm eggs, and in the soil taken from the Bronze Age skeletons, roundworm.

With this information, researchers deduced that what Hippocrates called the Helmins strongyle worm was probably what modern doctors would call roundworm. The Ascaris worm probably referred to two different parasites, they conclude, known today as pinworm (which was not found in this analysis) and whipworm (pictured below).

Whipworm under a microscope
A whipworm egg

Though historians already hypothesized that Hippocrates's patients on Kea had roundworm, the Ascaris finding comes as a particular surprise. Previous research based solely on Hippocrates’s writing rather than physical evidence suggested that what he called Ascaris was probably a pinworm, and another worm he mentioned, Helmins plateia, was probably a tapeworm. But the current research didn’t turn up any evidence of either of those two worms. Instead of pinworm eggs, the researchers found whipworm, another worm that’s similarly small and round. (Pinworms may very well have existed in ancient Greece, the researchers caution, since evidence of their fragile eggs could easily have been lost to time.) The soil analysis has already changed what we know about the intestinal woes of the ancient Greeks of Kea.

More importantly, this study provides the earliest evidence of ancient Greece’s parasitic worm population, proving yet again that ancient poop is one of the world’s most important scientific resources.

Arctic Temperatures are Rising So Fast, They're Confusing the Hell Out of Computers

This past year was a brutal one for northern Alaska, which saw temperatures that soared above what was normal month after month. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the numbers from the weather station at Utqiaġvik, Alaska. That's because the recent heat was so unusual for the area that computers marked the data as incorrect and failed to report it for the entirety of 2017, leaving a hole in the records of the Climate Monitoring group at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), according to the Huffington Post.

The weather station in the northernmost tip of Alaska has been measuring temperatures for nearly a century. A computer system there is programed to recognize if the data has been influenced by artificial forces: Perhaps one of the instruments isn't working correctly, or something is making the immediate area unnaturally hot or cold. In these cases, the computer edits out the anomalies so they don't affect the rest of the data.

But climate change has complicated this failsafe. Temperatures have been so abnormally high that the Utqiaġvik station erroneously removed all its data for 2017 and part of 2016. A look at the region's weather history explains why the computers might have sensed a mistake: The average yearly temperature for the era between 2000 and 2017 has gone up by 1.9°F from that of the era between 1979 and 1999. Break it down by month and the numbers are even more alarming: The average temperature increase is 7.8°F for October, 6.9°F for November, and 4.7°F for December.

"In the context of a changing climate, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet," Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch, wrote for The higher temperatures rise, the faster Arctic sea ice melts. Arctic sea ice acts as a mirror that reflects the Sun's rays back into space, and without that barrier, the sea absorbs more heat from the Sun and speeds up the warming process. “Utqiaġvik, as one of a precious few fairly long-term observing sites in the American Arctic, is often referenced as an embodiment of rapid Arctic change,” Arndt wrote.

As temperatures continue to grow faster than computers are used to, scientists will have to adjust their algorithms in response. The team at NCEI plans to have the Utqiaġvik station ready to record our changing climate once again within the next few months.

[h/t Huffington Post]


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