By Donella Meadows
–September 20, 1990–
Last week Space Biosphere Ventures, Inc. selected the four men and four women who will be locked for two years inside Biosphere II. On the day the announcement was made I was climbing around inside that Biosphere along with strategic planners from several multinational corporations. Depending on which of us you asked, we would say we had come to see: a) a tourist attraction better than Disneyland, b) a laboratory for understanding how the planet works, c) a research tool for conquering space, or d) the future.
Biosphere II is a mammoth greenhouse five stories high, covering two and a half acres in the Santa Catalina foothills outside Tucson. It is stunningly beautiful. It rises from the desert like another foothill, this one of glass supported by a white crisscross frame, with a flag flying proudly from its peak. Biosphere II and all the information and technologies it may generate are privately owned. It has cost so far somewhere around $100 million.
Last week Biosphere II bustled with workers fitting in its last glass panels and ecologists mapping its ecosystems. They were preparing for The Closing, which will happen a few months from now. The Closing will leave the eight bio-nauts inside, along with a farm, labs, computers, tools, a tropical forest, a savannah, a desert, a swamp, a mini-ocean, over 2000 species of higher plants and animals, and no one knows how many microbes. No air, water, food, materials, or creatures will pass in or out for two years.
It will work like Biosphere I, the Earth itself. The plants will make oxygen for the animals to breathe. The water will evaporate and rain down again. Plant and animal wastes will be composted and returned to the soil to nourish plants and animals once again. Everything will cycle; everything will be in balance — if it works.
It won’t work, was the unanimous opinion of the group I was with.
We were greatly sobered by the ecologists who have planned and planted Biosphere II. They are not at all sure what is going to happen. They worry, for example, that when the glass filters out the sun’s ultraviolet light — which threatens life in doses too high — there may also be a problem with doses too low.
Ultraviolet light keeps bacteria and fungi under control, and in animals it forms vitamin D. The people and farm animals in Biosphere II will be exposed to artificial UV light, but the rest of the ecosystem will have to fend for itself. There could be wierd skin diseases among the turtles, say the ecologists. There could be outbreaks of molds. The whole place could turn into green slime.
That’s only one among many, many uncertainties. Plants and insects from three continents are being mixed together. The species will just have to fight it out. They’re already doing so on the savannah, which was planted last June, and which has grown up into a waist-high green mass. Many extinctions are expected. After two years the ecologists plan to come back in and see what’s left.
Biosphere II’s ocean is already teetering on the brink of eutrophic disaster. There are viewing windows under the building, so you can see into the ocean as in an aquarium. The water is so turbid it is only transparent for a few feet. That could be because the marshes, coral, and fish have only recently been added and the nutrient cycles aren’t functioning yet. Or it could be because the 3:1 ratio of ocean to land on Earth has been reversed in Biosphere II (for economic reasons), and therefore there isn’t enough ocean to keep itself clean. Time will tell.
If we had our doubts while touring the surface layer of Biosphere II, we became utter pessimists when we went to the basement. Down there is a maze of pipes, blowers, motors, dials, fans, wires, chillers, heaters, electrostatic precipitators, humidifiers. The place throbs with mechanical energy (it pulls 3.5 megawatts off Arizona’s electrical grid). Biosphere II is about 10 percent biosphere and 90 percent technosphere. My colleagues began making bets about how much time the bio-nauts will spend fixing machinery and how long the system will last before its first major engineering failure.
What is all that machinery for? Interestingly enough, much of it is needed to make turbulence. A coral reef needs waves to wash nutrients in and wastes away — hence Biosphere II has a powerful wavemaker. Grasses and grains need wind for pollination, hence blowers. The planet’s turbulence is free; replicating it is expensive. Ideally there would be lightning storms in Biosphere II and occasional floods and an eight-knot wind blowing over the ocean. The budget ruled them out.
Machinery is also necessary for regulation, which, again, Biosphere I does for itself. The ocean needs an acidity corrector, a salt corrector, and a huge bank of subterranean, artificially lighted algae scrubbers to remove excess nutrients. The most important regulators are the chillers; if they fail for a few hours under the desert sun, Biosphere II will heat to over 140 degrees, and hundreds of species will die.
Then there are the monitors, the “sippers and sniffers,” to be sure the air and water quality are OK, and to sound a warning if they are not.
The forecast of my group of skeptical tourists is that Biosphere II will not endure unbreached for two years. It will have to be opened, adjusted, fixed, and restarted again and again. And that doesn’t matter. Even before The Closing, we found Biosphere II a heroic architectural and engineering experiment and a great teaching device. Its main lesson is how little we know about the magnificent and irreplaceable Biosphere I. As Tony Burgess, one of the design ecologists told us, “the construction of Biosphere II is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990