COVER

A NEW WORLD FOR THE FUTURE

ANNE STEACY September 5 1988
COVER

A NEW WORLD FOR THE FUTURE

ANNE STEACY September 5 1988

A NEW WORLD FOR THE FUTURE

COVER

Among scientists, the phrase Biosphere II summons up the promise of great advances. In September, 1990, U.S. scientists plan to seal eight volunteers into a huge pollution-free shell of concrete, stainless steel and glass containing a replica of the planet’s natural environment. Inside the five million cubic feet of that 2.5-acre miniworld, the men and women will live with 3,800 other species—from ladybugs and shrimp to fowl and deer—for two years. They will be able to fish and kayak in a 35-foot-deep simulated ocean, pluck papayas and bananas from trees in a tropical rain forest and tend corn and cocoa crops in fertile fields. But it is also to be a controlled, highly technical and scientific new Eden. And its existence has one primary goal: to try to ensure the survival of mankind.

Flow: The encapsulated world of Biosphere II will be near Oracle, Ariz., 75 km north of Tucson, in the desolate, burnt-orange landscape of the rocky Catalina mountain foothills. A biosphere is a life-sustaining environment, and scientists call the Earth, Biosphere Il’s tainted and now-fragile model, Biosphere I. Biosphere II is a private, profit-oriented project operated by Space Biosphere Ventures, a locally based company with 200 employees, including survivalists and researchers. Most of the $37 million for

the four-year-old enterprise has been donated by Texas multimillionaire Edward Bass. And despite criticism expressed by some scientists, members of the company say that they expect to make money marketing the new methods and equipment they are developing. Among the applications: restoring environmentally damaged areas and advancing exploratory programs conducted by NASA. Said architect Margret Augustine, who is the project’s director: “We believe that an ecological industry can turn a profit. To work with the flow of nature should cost you less in the long run.”

Still, Augustine says that the main intent is to conduct a range of experiments in the controlled laboratoryplanet for use in such areas as Central and South America’s damaged rain forests and Africa’s parched farmland. Augustine said that one plan involves mixing sterilized Arizona soil with microbes from the Amazon jungle and fungi, flowers and trees from tropical Africa to create a rain forest that will flourish and evolve. If they succeed, that process could help to restore rain forests destroyed by poverty-stricken settlers in such countries as Brazil.

And the scientists say that the intensive, chemical-free farming techniques they are developing for agricultural use inside their 85-foot-high test

tube will be of value in the parched wastelands of the Third World. To abolish expensive and highly destructive pesticides, they have already started experimenting with natural pest-removers: ladybugs to eat aphids, beetles to prey on spider mites, and wasps to attack whiteflies. And in order to ensure a constant supply of food inside Biosphere lí, the scientists are planning to rotate their crops, which will include rice, sunflowers, peas and potatoes. Indeed, on a larger scale, they are seeking to design new ways to recycle nutrients through the soil and purify both air and water.

Goats: In addition to the tropical rain forest and the mini-ocean—in which mechanically generated waves will lap over a coral reef of organisms from the Caribbean—the unique structure will contain three other distinct, glass-domed ecosystems: a marsh, a savanna—or grassland—and a desert. And there will also be an agriculture wing where the workers will tend tomatoes, asparagus, chickens and pygmy goats; a laboratory for storing and collecting plant tissues; and living quarters and recreational areas for the eight volunteers—probably an equal number of men and women—whom Augustine has not yet chosen. When they are not farming or monitoring experiments, the workers—who will be

equipped with computers, telephones and video linkups to the outside world—will be able to read, watch movies and television or exercise in a fitness centre. The rules regarding sexual behavior, added Augustine, remain undecided.

Attached to everything from guavas to pineapple leaves, 5,000 sensors scattered throughout Biosphere II will monitor factors including sunlight, temperature and air pressure.

Water will evaporate from the ocean, rise toward cooling coils over the rain forest, fall as rain, feed a stream that flows across the grasses of the savanna and into the marshes, and run back to the ocean. Air will flow from the desert to the rain forest and return, purified, to the desert. And natural systems will sterilize wastes, break them down and recycle them—procedures that would be crucial in a space colony.

Fumes: Some critics, including Dr. Donald Dahlsten, an entomologist at the University of California at Berkeley, say that the results of the experiment will have little value for the Earth—and that Biosphere II is nothing more than an expensive toy.

Said Dahlsten: “It is totally unrealistic to do an enclosed study like this.

In real life, we are not isolated from pesticides and other toxicants.” But according to Carl Hodges, director of the environmental research laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the closed system will make clear the full impact of substances released into the atmosphere. That is because cooking fumes and other pollutants entering the air in the biosphere will affect the moisture that creates rain in the tiny forest. For that reason, smoking and burning garbage will be forbidden. Said Hodges, whose 35 researchers are supervising the experiments: “In Biosphere II, you do not have to get Canada and the United States to agree that there is such a thing as acid rain—you will feel it in your eyes and drink it in your coffee cup.”

And the necessity of maintaining the delicate balance of the water, waste and ecosystems has also led to an important psychological change among the participants, according to

volunteer candidate Kathleen Dyhr, 38, who stopped smoking in order to qualify for the experiment. Said Dyhr, a nutritionist who spent five years training village health workers in Kenya and Nigeria: “The first thing is ‘throwing it out.’ Well, there is no ‘out’—it is all in. The second thing that means is that there is no waste.” Indeed, one of the group’s main challenges will be to ensure that the

amount of waste they produce will be no more than what they can convert to other, useful items including animal food and fertilizer.

Beaks: Selecting species for the enterprise has been a complicated undertaking, noted Hodges. For one thing, the researchers are still testing different varieties of termites—which are needed to break down grasses in the savanna—in an attempt to find one type that will not eat the window sealant. The scientists were forced to reject quails from the microworld when they found that the temperamental birds refused to lay eggs when humidity and temperature were altered. And although hummingbirds are natural choices to pollinate the flowers, the scientists had to find breeds with straight beaks long enough to penetrate as many of the chosen blooms as possible. Said Hodges: “It is not quite like playing God. It is more like playing

Noah. We have not invented any of the animals. We are betting on life’s desire to live.”

Hostile: But that rationale points to a more chilling aspect of the project. The domes of Biosphere II are also rising because of a grim sense of foreboding on the part of many environmentalists. There may come a time, they say, when the Earth collapses under the increasing burden of human excess—and mankind

will be forced to find a way to survive on a hostile planet far from the world’s familiar environment.

Indeed, Dr. James Bredt, the director of NASA’s Closed Ecological Life Support Systems Project, said that the Biosphere II scientists are pursuing a valuable course. Added Bredt: “They are doing everything right. You can’t help but admire their enthusiasm. If anyone can make it work, I am sure they can.” Still, the University of Arizona’s Hodges says that there is hope for the Earth, particularly if Biosphere II can provide a new perspective on man’s treatment of the planet. Declared Hodges: “Its great contribution will be the way it affects how we look at Biosphere I.” And that, at least, seems to be a noble goal.

BARBARA WADE ROSE

ANNE STEACY with BARBARA WADE ROSE in Oracle