Archive for August 8th, 2008

The Rainforest in the Desert

Posted on August 8, 2008. Filed under: Culture, Health, Science, Travel |

There is much of international interest in the news currently, and I’ll leave you to form your own opinions about those events. I focus here on a project which may benefit the worldwide community, and is located in my state of residence, Arizona, USA.

I’ve been fascinated to watch the developments of the latest NASA mission to Mars, involving the Phoenix Lander, and recently finding water on that planet. Although American in origin, I truly believe projects such as this can bring the world together to explore, at some point, colonizing either the moon, or the planet Mars. It is my fervent wish that extra-terrestrial planetary bodies will not be seen as the “property” of any one nation, but truly as the combined social and scientific explorations of many nations together.

In this spirit, albeit with a bit of local pride 😉 I’d like to discuss Biosphere 2, located a scant 20 miles from where I sit typing.

Biosphere 2 has now fascinated me for two decades, from long before I actually lived nearby. I first visited with family during the 2-year experiment, when eight “Biospherians” entered and lived in this completely closed, and theoretically self-sustaining domed environment. It was meant to study, in close proximity, seven different earth environments including a rainforest and an ocean! (This, in the dry Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona; an area totally landlocked, and anything but tropical). The project also planned to study climate change and its effects on plant and animal life, long before the term “global warming” was coined.

During my first tour there, in the early 90s, the project was managed by its founders, Space Biosphere Ventures. We tourists were given a lecture, and then a guided tour around the outside of the facility. We were, of course, not allowed inside the sealed environment, as it was an active, live, two-year contained laboratory. There are articles I shall link to which tell the story of the construction and philosophy behind the project, but I feel it’s important to point out that it was privately funded, and designed to be self-sustaining.

I was startled to see one of the Biospherians hoeing a field in the intensive farming environment. It’s hard to give a sense of how huge the Biosphere is—it’s commonly referred to as being the size of three football fields, and “the largest closed system ever created”—but it is a truly amazing sight, both from a distance and close up. It took about two hours to walk all the way around it and see and be told all about what was going on inside.

Each Biospherian had their job to do. There was farming, gardening, lab research and analysis. They grew their own food, recycled their waste, and coexisted with a variety of plant and animal life. It still amazes me that they have an OCEAN in there. A small one, but it has waves, and sea life, and everything!

The Biospherians were local and worldwide celebrities. They were on every television news channel as they entered the dome, to be sealed in for their two-year experiment. They waved to the crowd as the cheers erupted, looking just like astronauts in their uniforms. I couldn’t imagine being sealed inside a dome with seven other people for two whole years! Even though they had demanding jobs, emergency rations, and plenty of recreational equipment, it didn’t seem like something I’d like to do!

We all watched, breathlessly, as the experiment proceeded, because if this was successful, it was in all our imaginations that a similar structure could be built on Mars! or the Moon! The domes were based on designs by the iconoclastic R. Buckminster Fuller.

{An aside: Years ago (I’ve always been a science nerd) I met “Bucky” in an elevator at a San Francisco hotel where he’d been giving a lecture. I’d attended, and thought I’d head up to the rooftop restaurant to have a spot of tea. (I was all by myself, and very young. I look back now, and am amazed I used to do things like this at that age.) Well, Bucky and his entourage got into the elevator, too, and he looked right at me (I had to look down, he was a little guy) and asked if I’d enjoyed his talk. I shook his hand and told him it blew my mind. He asked if I’d understood it. I blurted out “No!” and blushed furiously. (I used to blush a lot in those days.) He chuckled softly to himself, as I plastered my tongue-tied self against the wall.}

Bucky’s domes are world famous, and provide structural integrity along with beauty. Biosphere 2 is very beautiful. The visual impact of this delicate-looking structure in its desert location justifies its existence even if it never did an experiment in its life!

Things didn’t go as planned in the dome. The environment, meant to be self-sustaining, was losing oxygen. There wasn’t enough food; the scientists were hungry. And, the eight-member crew split into two political and social factions. Some members barely spoke to one another. Again, I’ll refer to outside sources for much of their fascinating story, including an interview from one of the hungry Biospherians. Many considered this a “failed” experiment, as oxygen had to be pumped in from outside, and the goals of the project changed as the social conditions deteriorated. I still think it’s an amazing effort. It’s crucial, if we as a species ever do colonize other planets, that we know our structures will function. Most likely, on the moon, we won’t be able to pump in oxygen, or send out to McDonald’s if the dwellers run out of food!

In this Wikipedia article, I was particularly interested in the section titled “Psychology and Conflict”. It is, of course, vital to know that a structure housing humans in a non-earth atmosphere can be relied upon. Equally vital is the study of humans living together in confined spaces for a long time. While there have been a number of studies done on living conditions in arctic environments, most of my knowledge about such things comes from Science Fiction. There are any number of plots where either the crew’s air or their patience runs out—not a desired outcome in either case.

Synchronistically, a few days ago an episode of one of my favorite Sci-Fi shows aired on television. Eureka is set in a fictional town where most of the inhabitants are geniuses and doing amazing research into unbelievable projects. Its existence, let alone the work going on there, is highly classified, and the show’s “glue” is its “regular guy” Sheriff who tries to keep order amongst these eclectic and overly-intelligent residents. In the episode “What About Bob“, we learn that Eureka has a long term Biosphere-type experiment going on, but their biosphere is built deep underground. Unlikely mayhem takes place, however the questions asked by the “real” Biosphere are asked, here too, without, unfortunately, any better answers. Stay tuned.

After going through a couple of ownership and management shifts, Biosphere 2 is now managed by the University of Arizona as a science center to research our impact upon our own planet. Many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when our local “U” took over, as we’d heard the facility would be razed for a housing development!

One can now tour inside the domes! I’ve been back, and I have. It’s this kind of research that gives me hope for the human species.

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