Today in History as Told by Maps: September 26, 1991 / Site Selection

Biosphere 2 (“Warning. All hell’s breaking loose.” — Bio-Dome) is the largest closed ecological system research facility, modeled after the original biosphere, Earth. This day in 1991 marks the beginning of the first two-year mission to study feasibility of self-sufficient systems for potential human space colonies.

A planned vivarium spanning 3.14 acres in Oracle, Arizona, Biosphere 2 contains five biomes: rainforest, ocean, wetland, savannah grassland, and fog desert. In addition to habitats imitating ones on Earth, there is an agricultural system to provide food and dwelling for the crew.

Planned Biosphere 2 (Picture from the University of Arizona)


How did the team of planners and engineers decide on this location to construct the facility? More broadly, how do developers determine suitable sites for projects? GIS is heavily utilized in the real estate industry precisely for its power in spatial evaluation. In the case of Biosphere 2, the selection criteria entailed ease of obtaining building permits, accessibility to import species to raise in the dome, and perhaps the relative sequestration from the general public.* The designers of Biosphere 2 likely went through several spatial analysis processes such as summarizing data on different features (locations of amenities, nearby landmarks…etc.), and finding potential sites based on specific criteria (elevation, distance to roads, distance to import facilities, water source, just to name a few).

While spatial analysis can yield viable options for development sites, the output is contingent upon the quality of the data, and the rigorousness of the selection criteria. One example manifested as a challenge in executing the Biosphere 2 experiment—external desert heat on the dome producing condensation altering moisture of the artificial desert inside (could be mediated by a location within a more temperate climate region).