Biosphere 2 Behind the Scenes

Biosphere 2 Behind the Scenes

By Daniel StolteUniversity Communications
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(Photo by Ren Hinks)
(Photo by Ren Hinks)

Each day, before the first visitors line up at the Biosphere 2 ticket counter, before conference speakers set up their PowerPoint presentations in the conference rooms, and before the first gaggle of middle schoolers pours through the entrance gate, UA employees have already been busy behind the scenes.

In recognition of the announcement that the University has received a $30 million gift to support Biosphere 2, LQP spoke with three of the living laboratory's employees about what it takes to keep a miniature Earth running while ensuring that visitors experience the facility as what it is – one of 50 "wonders of the world."

Rainmaker, Snake Wrangler, MacGyver-on-Call: Stephen Littler

Littler, who has been with Biosphere 2 for 25 years, is in charge of the operations and maintenance department. Littler and his small team of stationary engineers – Charles Gates, Bob Willing and Matt Stickroth – take care of miles of piping and climate controls that keep the facility running. They monitor energy usage and are always on the ready to fix anything on a moment's notice. Biosphere 2 occupies about 40 acres of land, with more than 3 acres enclosed under a giant dome of glass and steel.Steve Littler

"We perform instrumentation operations, throw in some landscaping, a little bit of maintenance," Littler says. "We have a relatively small crew, so a lot of people are doing a lot of different things. For example, we have two part-time landscapers that we utilize for maintenance on air handlers, pump repair, or moving furniture. We are all certified in first aid, CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator) administration, and are the first responders for medical emergencies and security issues.

"At Biosphere 2's Energy Center, we have three very large boilers and two generators – one that runs on natural gas and the other on diesel. Combined, we have 3 megawatts of potential generation, enough to supply the power requirements of approximately 825 households. We typically buy power off the grid, but a lot can happen out here in the desert. Especially now, during the monsoons, outages can happen, and then we have to run the generators until the power lines come live again and are stable. If we had to, we could trim the site load and run on one generator alone.

"Climate control is paramount at Biosphere 2, because with all that glass and the solar gain, things get warm very quickly. In the summer, it doesn't take long for the facility to heat up. We turn on the majority of our air handlers early in the morning when temperatures begin to spike in the biomes. The rainforest biome is between 80 and 84 degrees, with almost 90 percent humidity. In the summer, the interpretive specialists take their tour groups into that area, talk really quick and get out.

"On a day-to-day basis, we monitor the ocean habitat, the marshland and our two streams – one in the rainforest and one in the savannah – to make sure water flow and circulation are good. We use a computer program to make sure the adequate amount of 'rain' is distributed in the various quadrants. Biosphere 2 was built around redundancy. Most systems have three pumps. With each of these pumps, there are check valves and electronics, so we have to make sure the equipment is performing correctly and efficiently.

"Oh, and when the need arises, we relocate venomous snakes and reptiles from our public trails and walkways, primarily for the safety of our visitors."

Event Organizer, Hospitality Queen, All-Around Problem Solver: Kimberly Land

Land, who has been with Biosphere 2 since 2011, is the coordinator of event operations. She oversees a team of nine, including one facility events coordinator and a rotating housekeeping staff of two to four people, depending on demand, who are in charge not only of Biosphere 2's Conference Center, but the entire facility. The Conference Center encompasses meeting rooms of various sizes and 103 bedrooms, distributed across 28 cozy casitas.Kimberly Land

"We host a variety of UA-sponsored as well as private-sector events. We do really well with conferences up to 120 participants. I work hand in hand with the organizers of conferences on all of the logistical details including meeting room setups, AV needs, catering and other activities to ensure that their event is successful. We make sure the rooms are cleaned and ready to occupy upon arrival.

"Biosphere 2 lends itself so well to events, workshops, retreats and conferences. We know we are a bit off the beaten path, but once the participants get here, they quickly realize what this place is all about: We don't have the distractions the big hotels have. Out here, you are away from hoopla or Tucson and Phoenix; you're committed to what you came here for. While they're here, people immerse and connect over the scenic views of the Santa Catalina mountains, which is very conducive to collaboration and productivity.

"I enjoy the property, the beauty around it, and I get to work with some truly amazing team members who share the same passion of Biosphere 2 as I do.  In a sense, it's a big place – but it's a small place, too. Everyone works really well together.

"My number one goal is to ensure a great experience and to deliver the best customer service possible for all of our visitors and guests." 

Coral Whisperer, K-12 Educator, Ruler Over 10,000 Hermit Crabs: Katie Morgan

As Biosphere 2's program coordinator for marine science and outreach, Morgan manages the ocean habitat system, designed as a flourishing coral reef "ecosystem in a bottle" during the closed experiments at Biosphere 2.Katie Morgan

"We are working on how we can rehabilitate the ocean in order to do coral reef research that can't be done anywhere else in the world. As surface temperatures rise and more carbon dioxide enters the oceans, marine ecosystems change on a global scale. At Biosphere 2, we can manipulate variables that can't be controlled in the natural environment. We can heat the ocean, we can change its chemistry and study the effects.

"Right now, we are in the process of restoring proper salinity. That has been quite a process. The ocean has around 700,000 gallons of water, and we need to add 60,000 pounds of salt to bring the salinity back up to what it is in the oceans. Corals need a consistent temperature in the range of 77 degrees. We are looking at warming the Biosphere 2 ocean and seeing how different corals react to that stress. Heating that much water is not trivial. It takes a lot of energy, but it's worth it, because Biosphere 2 is such a valuable science tool – it's a unique system that fills the gap between the laboratory scale and the natural environment.

"The second part of my job is outreach. I work under Kevin Bonine and help with our K-12 programs. We get about 7,000 students from all over Arizona and the U.S that come to Biosphere 2 with their class to get a hands-on, interactive science experience. On Earth Day, we added 10,000 hermit crabs to the ocean to help eat some of the algae in the Biosphere 2 ocean. Typical tasks range from calibrating and monitoring the instruments that control our ocean and mangrove systems, to interpreting our ocean to students or the public, from feeding fish to cleaning up fish poop. I get to have my hands in a lot of different projects."

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