Exploration: Biosphere 2

Imagine (voluntarily) locking yourself in an enclosed space for two years, growing your own food within a glass bubble.

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The rainforest inside Biosphere 2.

This was reality for eight scientists and researchers — the “Biospherians” — who entered in the Biosphere 2‘s first mission from 1991-1993. The Biosphere, tucked in the mountains in Tucson, Arizona, was invented to see if humans could survive in an enclosed space in case of extreme future CO2 levels (which is already becoming a reality) or a space colony, for example.

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An outside look of the main room, which houses the mangroves, savanna, desert and ocean.

The Biospherians lived off the 5 ecosystems in the Biosphere 2, producing crops in a self-sustaining bubble. The bubble is made up of several ecosystems, including the rainforest, ocean, savanna and desert, to name a few, all of which are populated by plants and animals.

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The rainforest room.

The Biospherians cultivated their own garden, which produced a very “farm to table” approach to food, as they could only prepare what was ready to eat.

Over the next two years they grew 80 percent of their food, something NASA has never attempted. They recycled their sewage and effluent, drinking the same water countless times, totally purified by their plants, soil, atmosphere, and machines. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite good intentions and fact that the scientists made it 2 years within the walls, the experiment has largely been publicized as a failure. Rising CO2 levels inside the glass dropped oxygen levels, and food production waned.

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Plants in the main room above the “ocean,”

As oxygen was converted to carbon dioxide, free oxygen in the atmosphere declined. By January 1993, Biosphere 2’s carbon dioxide levels were 12 times that of the outside, and oxygen levels were what mountaineers get at 17,000 feet. The crew’s doctor was having trouble adding up simple figures and disqualified himself from duty. So, a year and four months into the mission, tank trucks containing 31,000 pounds of liquid oxygen started driving up the access road to the site. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite the deemed “failure,” the Biosphere 2 experiment left behind some great science, namely an entirely enclosed infrastructure with the aim of keeping humans (and plants and animals) alive. I walked around the basement of the dome, as well as the “lungs,” and was blown away by the recycled sewage and water systems, which they recycled for 2 years.

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It also informed how the carbon cycle and oxygen dynamics in humans connect, as well as continues to provide ecological data and fodder for visiting scientists.

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Backside of the Biosphere 2 where the Biospherian’s lived.

And why Biosphere 2, you may be wondering? Because Earth is the original Biosphere. Read more about the Biosphere 2 here.

Earth Week 2015: how are the oceans doing, anyway?

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

Sometimes we forget about the oceans, despite the fact that they take up 70% of the Earth’s surface. Or, more specifically, we forget to think about what ends up there.

A study in the journal Science found that we deposit between 5.3 and 14 million tons of plastic in the oceans every year. I mean sure, that’s a huge range. But to make it more fathomable, OnEarth made analogies for plastic totaling 9 million tons. 9 million tons of plastic is 136 billion plastic jugs, which, if stacked, would “reach more than halfway to Mars.” 9 million tons of plastic is “also the equivalent of piling five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the world.”

So, in other words, that’s a lot of plastic. And however you quantify it, a lot of it is going into the oceans.

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If you don’t know, there is a huge pile of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is actually a group of trash piles that collect between the west coast of the US and the East Coast of Asia. The trash “vortex” collects in a convergence zone in the ocean – where warm water from the the southern hemisphere meets with cold water from the Arctic. You can see the different trash piles below:

The plastic converges here because a lot of it isn’t biodegradable, considering it’s plastic. That, paired with the fact that we produce 620% more plastic than we did as a society in 1975, is causing problems for marine life as well as the health of the ocean. Mashable reports that when plastic is jostled in the ocean, it is sometimes broken up into tiny shreds, small enough to be ingested my animals and avoid nets of those trying to clean up the sea.

Garbage washed up in Hawaii

So what can you do to help? Here are some ideas:

  • Use less plastic: we only recycle 14% of plastic we use in the US, and that’s pretty bad. If you live in an area where recycling is easily accessible, please just recycle. Just put that plastic bottle in your recycling bin!
  • Stop using products with plastic micro-beads in them: okay, so ICYMI, your facial cleanser probably has tiny pieces of plastic in it. Do you have exfoliating beads? Bingo. Simple solution – don’t use these! Find other products . If you’re inclined to take a stand, find out more here.
  • Reuse the plastic you do use: use extra plastic jars to house snacks instead of using plastic snack/sandwich bags. You can also reuse the tupperware from lunch meat to take your sandwiches to work. There are endless possibilities!
  • Don’t use plastic bottles: if you read my blog, you know plastic bottles are horrible, not just for the environment because of plastic pollution, but because of water extraction too. The bottles are made of fossil fuels, too, which doesn’t help the Earth much.

It’s easy to make change – just pick what works for you and stick to it! A little goes a long way. Thanks for joining me for this Earth Week series!

This post concludes my Earth Week posts for 2015. Click here for more!

 

Earth Week 2015: Happy Earth Day!

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

Well, maybe it’s not so happy. 14 out of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. We’re running out of water. There’s still pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

But we’re getting better! More cities and corporations than ever are committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions over time. Renewable energy use is rising. Students at universities around the country, including mine (the University of Montana), are making the push to divest from fossil fuels.

This year, environmental holidays like Earth Hour and World Water Day were smashing successes, bringing information and education to thousands more than years prior.

NASA’s social campaign for Earth Day 2015

NASA has created a new celebration this Earth Day, which they named #NoPlaceLikeHome. They are encouraging social sharing with the hashtag, with which users should share their favorite places on Earth. I’ll be sharing on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, so be on the lookout for that!

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also joining the party with a Twitter chat (#EarthDayEveryDay) featuring EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy today at 3:30pm ET. The EPA also encourages Earth lovers to celebrate Earth Day by watching videos, attending an event, and taking action.

Earth Day Network also provides a list of events around the US to celebrate this wonderful holiday. This year, Earth Day Network is focused on three facets of saving the planet:

  • Sustainable development: this idea has grown in the past few years. LEED certified buildings are gaining popularity, as well as green cities. The green cities movement includes bike transportation, urban agriculture, and solar-powered buses, to name a few.
  • Grassroots movements: like sustainable development, grassroots movements have come to t he forefront of the environmental movement, too. The biggest climate march EVER happened in New York City last September, so people are starting to see climate change and environmental issues as something we should be paying attention to.
  • 2015 – the year of the treaty?: The world has tried, yet the US has never really signed a climate treaty.. yet. Earth Day Network hopes that 2015 will be the year of a treaty, one where global leaders will catch on to serious issues and start monitoring carbon dioxide output, TOGETHER. But the bigger question remains: will we actually do the things in said treaty? Time will tell.

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As always, there are ways we personally can help the environment on this 45th Earth Day:

  • STOP USING PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS WITH PLASTIC IN THEM, please: sorry for yelling, but it’s time, people. Did you know there’s plastic in some toothpastes and face washes? It’s easy enough to switch to a brand without them. Microbeads, made of plastic, travel through our drains and end up in our waterways, killing small organisms and clogging up ecosystems. Take it a step further and sign this petition, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle: Take a step back and re-evaluate the three pillars of eco-friendliness – reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce your consumption of plastic by using a reusable cup (see what I did there?). Reuse your containers (like glass jars, plastic lunch meat containers) to save other food, or to use in arts and crafts. Recycle said plastic cups and other recyclables in your bin or at your city’s recycling plant.
  • Pledge an act of green: if online activism is your cup of tea, head over to Earth Day Network and pledge an act of green. Try to get them to 2 billion!
  • Go outside: perhaps the simplest, yet the hardest to remember. Walk to class, ride your bike, or take your dog out for a much-needed run. Doing these things not only deepens your appreciation for the outdoors and gives you an excuse to exercise, it also takes us away from our homes, so we’re using less energy.

Whatever you do, choose something you can commit to doing. Last year, I got rid of microbeads. This year, I’m going to try harder to buy food items with as little packaging as possible. Happy Earth Day!

Check back Thursday 4/23 for Earth Week 4: the rise of renewables.

Sustainable Thanksgiving 2.0

Last year, I blogged about having a sustainable Thanksgiving. Here are my top three tips for this year:

SAVE WATER by plugging up your sink while washing dishes, and pack that dishwasher full. You should be using real dishes in the first place, because using plastic/paper plates creates a lot of waste, so wash those oddly shaped dishes (hello, gravy boat) in the plugged sink. You won’t have to waste so much water and soap that way when you wash the next oddly-shaped dish. We also sometimes get into the habit of not stuffing our dishwashers. That’s what they’re for – to wash dishes – so full them up, within reason.

It may be too late for this, but DON’T TRAVEL AS FAR. Being that Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year, you may all be on the way to relatives houses already as I write this. If you’re driving, carpool as much as possible. Instead of sitting around waiting for turkey, go on a walk with your family before/after dinner. These activities lessen carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

Finally, SAVE, SAVE, SAVE. This applies to food, mostly. According to NPR, Americans waste 33 million tons of food per year. Some people aren’t fond of leftovers, but next-day turkey sandwiches are some of the best left-overs there are! Instead of throwing away food, you can save it for yourself or compost what can be composted. Save decorations, too. Don’t throw away your child’s hand turkey – save it for next year to save money (and waste) on decorations. If you use a plastic table cloth for dinner, wash it in the washing machine – my mom always does (BUT DON’T DRY THEM, THAT WOULD BE HORRIBLE). You can use the table cloth for an outdoor party or painting extravaganza. Along the same lines, make sure you recycle all of the food containers (cans, plastic containers and boxes) you used to make your Thanksgiving feast!

Bottom line: save everything, or, at least try!