Biospherian shares water stories from ‘Spaceship Earth’

Biosphere 2 was an ecological system built in the Arizona desert

Through a radical experiment living inside a mini-Earth, ecologist Dr Mark Nelson developed a deep understanding of humans’ impact on the water cycle.

Biosphere 2 was a 3.1 acre virtually air-tight ecological system, containing a rainforest, fog desert, freshwater and mangrove marsh and mini ocean with a coral reef and was home to eight "biospherian" crew members for two years.

Built in the southern Arizona desert in 1991, the experiment was designed to study basic processes that occur on Earth – Biosphere 1 – and serve as a prototype for large-scale support systems that would be needed if humans were to live in space and on other planets.

The lessons learned inside continue to resonate with an ever-widening audience – the project was the subject of a new documentary, Spaceship Earth, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January 2020 and is available to view on platforms including Prime Video.

Nelson was responsible for managing a constructed wetland marsh recycling system for the wastewater produced by the crew, a task that fueled a passion for nature-based treatment systems.

He said: “Once regarded as worthless swamps because they can’t support agriculture, wetlands are now called the kidneys of the planet because they are so efficient at removing harmful compounds before these reach rivers, lakes or the ocean or pollute sources of drinking water.

“The pioneers of this type of natural treatment can be traced back to the 1950s but Biosphere 2 was a great platform, as we were tracked by so many around the planet. People were fascinated by what happened to our pee and poo, so to realise that our beautiful wetlands system was thriving on those substances, and they were completing the water cycle, was a message that went out to millions.”

After leaving Biosphere 2, Nelson founded the company Wastewater Gardens International, which creates constructed wetlands.

Among its ongoing projects is Eden in Iraq, a collaborative effort to provide effective wastewater treatment for Marsh Arab communities in the city of El Chibaish, in the southern Iraq marshes. Chosen as one of 100 grassroots projects for UNESCO’s 2020-2021 Green Citizens Initiative, the project will deliver a 30,000 square meter wastewater garden to serve 7,500 inhabitants.

Nelson said: “Our aim is to bring an effective, ecological treatment system for sewage and water recycling into a region which lacks this and is in danger of losing its amazing history and culture. We hope Eden in Iraq will mark the start of a new era after decades of war and ecological devastation and can be important as a demonstration project for implementation elsewhere in Iraq, the Middle East and the world.”

While Nelson is encouraged that nature-based treatment projects are becoming more widespread globally, he wants to see a more rapid implementation.

“There is enormous potential for expanding constructed wetland treatment systems to places where there is lack of proper sanitation and contamination of drinking water. Our health depends on our biosphere and it is urgent we use every approach to better understand how it functions – and how we humans can cooperate with our ultimate life-support system, not degrade it.

“The Biosphere 2 project was 50 years ahead of its time. ‘Biosphere’ and ‘sustainability’ were then obscure academic words, but the world has caught up.

“We are now on the edge of all kinds of breakthroughs fueled by peoples’ changing attitudes towards climate and a desire to become better stewards of nature. Meeting the challenges required to not just sustain but regenerate our living world, we can create healthier and more fulfilling futures for everyone.”

Nelson will share his extraordinary story during a BlueNote address at water innovation event BlueTech Forum on 6-8 June 2022.

"People were fascinated by what happened to our pee and poo, so to realise that our beautiful wetlands system was thriving on those substances, was a message that went out to millions,”

Mark Nelson, ecologist and biospherian
Mark Nelson in the southern Iraq marshes