Biospherian shares water stories from ‘Spaceship Earth’

Through a radical two-year experiment living inside a mini-Earth, ecologist Dr Mark Nelson developed a deep understanding of humans’ connection with the planetary biosphere and their impacts on the water cycle.

Dr Mark Nelson

Biosphere 2 was a 1.2 hectare (3.1 acre) virtually air-tight ecological system containing five areas, modelled on Earth’s biomes, and an agricultural system. Built in the southern Arizona desert in 1991, Biosphere 2 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.

Nelson will share his extraordinary story during a BlueNote address at water innovation event BlueTech Forum, taking place in Vancouver, Canada, on 6-8 June 2022.

Biosphere 2 contained a rainforest, fog desert, freshwater and mangrove marsh and mini ocean with a coral reef. Air, water and nutrient recycling systems were interconnected, and innovative wastewater treatment and reuse systems created.

Nelson was responsible for managing a constructed wetland marsh recycling system for the wastewater produced by the eight crew members (“biospherians”).  A transformative experience, it fuelled a passion for nature-based treatment systems as viable alternatives to energy and capital-intensive centralised plants, reinforcing his belief that ecological engineering is essential in creating a sustainable and regenerative future.

Nelson is a co-founding director of the Institute of Ecotechnics (US/UK) which set its goal at developing theory and practice of how to better integrate human technologies and activities with restoration of ecological health. The institute was a key part of the Biosphere 2 research team.

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 gained degrees in watershed management and ecological engineering and founded the company Wastewater Gardens International, which creates constructed wetlands.

Example of a wastewater garden in Algeria

Meanwhile, the lessons learned inside Biosphere 2 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. The wastewater garden concept is also gaining a higher global profile as companies, local authorities and municipalities seek to adapt to a circular economy and implement blue-green infrastructure as part of flood resilience and stormwater management strategies, particularly in urban areas.

Nelson’s BlueNote talk will also highlight the current Eden in Iraq project, a collaborative effort to provide effective wastewater treatment for Marsh Arab communities in the city of El Chibaish, in the southern Iraq marshes.

Eden in Iraq will provide wastewater treatment 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.

After a decade of consultation with local communities and government officials, excited about an affordable, ecological wastewater treatment system instead of the current discharge of raw sewage into the marshes, the project team has signed an agreement with the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment to implement the first stage of the project.

Nelson said: “The Eden in Iraq design derives from different professional skills, ranging from technical to artistic. We are using imagery and wastewater to create a garden to symbolise the transformation of centuries of conflict into art.

“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.”

Artist’s impression of the completed Eden in Iraq garden

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 fuelled 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.”

BlueTech Forum will take place at the Vancouver Convention Centre, on 6-8 June 2022, with the theme Radical Collaboration for Regeneration. Hosted by BlueTech Research, organisers are building an immersive experience to bring the story of water to life and ensure enduring impact.

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