Bio­sphere 2 legacy lives on more than quar­ter-cen­tury later

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - Anita Snow AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ORACLE, Ariz. – They lived for two years and 20 min­utes un­der the glass of a minia­ture Earth, com­plete with an ocean, rain for­est, desert, grass­lands and man­groves. Their air and wa­ter were re­cy­cled, and they grew the sweet pota­toes, rice and other food they needed to sur­vive.

About 1,500 peo­ple were in­vited and some 200 jour­nal­ists were on hand as the eight orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of Bio­sphere 2 left their glass ter­rar­ium a quar­ter-cen­tury ago last month in two groups that no longer talked to each other amid the stress of shar­ing a small space and dis­putes over how the pro­ject should be run. De­trac­tors called the $150 mil­lion ex­per­i­ment a fail­ure be­cause ad­di­tional oxy­gen was pumped into what was sup­posed to be a self-sus­tain­ing sys­tem.

A power strug­gle in sub­se­quent months led Texas bil­lion­aire backer Ed­ward P. Bass to hire in­vest­ment banker Stephen Ban­non, who was later Pres­i­dent Trump’s chief strate­gist, to bring the pro­ject back from fi­nan­cial dis­ar­ray.

To­day, Bio­sphere 2 is a dif­fer­ent kind of place, a Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona site where re­searchers from around the world can study ev­ery­thing from the ef­fects of the ocean’s acid­i­fi­ca­tion on coral to ways of en­sur­ing food se­cu­rity.

“It started out as a great, big kind of so­ci­etal ex­per­i­ment and was trans­formed by pure in­ge­nu­ity into some­thing else that has proved use­ful,” said Jef­frey S. Dukes, di­rec­tor of the Per­due Cli­mate Change Re­search Cen­ter. “It’s also a re­ally cool fa­cil­ity to tour.”

Joaquin Ruiz, a ge­ol­o­gist who di­rects the pro­ject in the Sono­ran Desert about 30 miles north­east of Tuc­son, said Bio­sphere 2’s con­trolled en­vi­ron­ments al­low re­searchers to con­duct ex­per­i­ments they won’t try out­side “be­cause you don’t want to have un­in­tended cir­cum­stances.”

That means re­searchers from the Global In­sti­tute for Wa­ter Se­cu­rity at the Uni­ver­sity of Saskatchewan in Canada don’t have to worry about harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment while study­ing how plants in the tiny rain­for­est ad­just their wa­ter con­sump­tion.

The minia­ture ocean is be­ing ren­o­vated so re­searchers from places in­clud­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Hawaii can con­tinue ex­per­i­ments on a minia­ture reef with­out hurt­ing reefs in the Pa­cific. A $550,000 grant from Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity is help­ing sci­en­tists test the­o­ries about wa­ter move­ment on three ar­ti­fi­cial slopes known as the Land­scape Evo­lu­tion Ob­ser­va­tory, a gi­gan­tic Earth sci­ence lab­o­ra­tory.

The uni­ver­sity as­sumed man­age­ment of Bio­sphere 2 in mid-2007 and in June 2011 an­nounced full ac­qui­si­tion of the glass-en­closed area of just over 3 acres that reaches as tall as 75 feet in some places, and the build­ings and grounds around it.

Like Dukes, in­de­pen­dent ecol­o­gist Christo­pher Field, di­rec­tor of the Stan­ford Woods In­sti­tute for the En­vi­ron­ment, said Bio­sphere 2 has proved use­ful for sci­ence in its cur­rent it­er­a­tion.

“You have to sep­a­rate it from what it was orig­i­nally to see its worth to­day,” said Field, adding that con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment fa­cil­i­ties like Bio­sphere 2 “are a pow­er­ful way to help us un­der­stand the way the world works. “

“It is an im­por­tant piece in our port­fo­lio for un­der­stand­ing cli­mate change,” he said.

Bi­ol­o­gist John Adams, Bio­sphere 2’s deputy di­rec­tor, has been with the pro­ject since 1995, when he was a new Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona grad­u­ate. “It’s al­ways been an au­da­cious, am­bi­tious pro­ject,” he said.

Adams said 55 peo­ple now work at the site, in­clud­ing 30 re­searchers. Bass do­nated $30 mil­lion to Bio­sphere 2 last year and sits on its ad­vi­sory board.

“They have been do­ing a re­ally great job, lay­ing some strong foun­da­tions for their sci­ence,” Jane Poyn­ter, one of the eight orig­i­nal Bio­sphere 2 in­hab­i­tants, said of the cur­rent re­search. “Twen­ty­five years af­ter we came out, it’s still very for­ward-look­ing.”

Poyn­ter said that since she and the other “Bio­sphe­ri­ans” emerged from the green­house, much of the orig­i­nal an­i­mos­ity has faded away.

The ini­tial pro­ject was the brain­child of sys­tems ecol­o­gist John Allen, and Bass was fi­nan­cial backer when the first group of four women and four men en­tered Bio­sphere 2 on Sept. 26, 1991. Now al­most 90, Allen lives qui­etly in Santa Fe, New Mex­ico.

A mis­sion by a sec­ond group was ter­mi­nated early af­ter Bass ousted Allen and other top man­agers in April 1994 and tem­po­rar­ily made Ban­non act­ing di­rec­tor dur­ing a man­age­ment dis­pute. Ban­non led the pro­ject for about two years, and Columbia Uni­ver­sity then took over, chang­ing the once vir­tu­ally air­tight struc­ture to a “flow-through” sys­tem and ma­nip­u­lat­ing car­bon diox­ide lev­els to study global warm­ing.

Poyn­ter and Taber MacCal­lum later mar­ried and set­tled in Tuc­son, where they op­er­ate World View En­ter­prises, a com­pany that is pi­o­neer­ing flight to the edge of space with high-al­ti­tude bal­loons. They met dur­ing train­ing for Bio­sphere 2, and their ro­mance flour­ished af­ter they en­tered the en­clo­sure.

The cou­ple hopes World View’s high­alti­tude re­mote-con­trolled bal­loons will even­tu­ally be used for weather mon­i­tor­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and re­search at a frac­tion of the cost of satel­lites. They are also work­ing on a craft called Voy­ager, which they want to use to take peo­ple some 100,000 feet above Earth.

Crew mem­bers Abi­gail Alling, Mark Van Thillo and Sarah Sil­ver­stone work with their Bio­sphere Foun­da­tion, which con­ducts ma­rine re­search in south­east Asia. Fel­low crew mem­ber Linda Leigh, a botanist lives near Bio­sphere 2 in Ari­zona. Crew physi­cian Roy Wal­ford , a well-known re­searcher on the ef­fects of a low-calo­rie diet on longevity, died from Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease in 2004 at age 79.

The other crew mem­ber, Mark Nel­son, lives in Santa Fe and re­cently pub­lished a book called “Push­ing Our Lim­its: In­sights From Bio­sphere 2.”

In the book, Nel­son re­flects on the group’s ex­pe­ri­ences and calls on peo­ple to re­new their re­la­tion­ship with na­ture to help re­verse trends threat­en­ing the orig­i­nal bio­sphere, Earth.

“I re­main op­ti­mistic about the prospects for the ‘hu­man ex­per­i­ment,’ ” he writes. “Prob­lems hu­mans cause can also be solved by hu­mans.”

Sev­eral of the main build­ings of the Bio­sphere 2 com­plex, in­clud­ing the trop­i­cal rain­for­est, left, the tech­no­sphere, cen­ter, and the south lung are shown as a thun­der­storm moves past in Oracle, Ariz. ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.