Trouble in the bio bubble

The Age (Australia)/January 23, 2004

By Roger Highfield

The visionary Biosphere 2 has been beset by problems from the start. Roger Highfield reviews the unsustainable sustainability project.

The media called it a "planet in a bottle". A microcosm of Biosphere 1 (the Earth), Biosphere 2 was a grand scheme, a crystal cathedral that was to help solve environmental problems, even show how to sustain a colony on Mars.

Last month, however, Columbia University pulled out of the troubled eco-experiment in the southern Arizona desert, leaving Biosphere 2's fate in the hands of billionaire owner, Texas oil magnate Edward Bass, who will decide its fate.

The project dates back to 1973, when Bass dropped out of Yale and encountered John Allen, a charismatic New Age visionary described as a "cult leader" by some critics. At the time, Allen ran a theatre troupe at Synergia Ranch, a commune south of Santa Fe.

Worried that Earth faced ecological collapse, Allen was struck by the possibility of escaping to new colonies in space. Bass was inspired, too - by the educational possibilities of building a test bed for such a colony. Biosphere 2 was born and work began in earnest around 1984.

The glass and steel structure was to test whether humans could thrive in a closed environment that replicated ecosystems on Earth. Costing about £100 million ($A236 million), the mini Earth had self-contained biomes - a mini-rainforest, savanna, desert and coral ocean - and was stocked with 3800 species.

The first "Biospherians", four men and four women, entered the utopian refuge on September 26, 1991. Even then, the project was accused of being a profit-making theme park and a pantheon of New Age flakiness. A 1992 study by experts praised its construction as an act of "vision and courage" but tut-tutted that the science was flawed.

Undeterred, the crew planned to spend two years testing if the blend of plant and animal life inside the structure could support them. The giant terrarium was overrun by crazy ants and morning glories. There was a collapse of many animal populations, from hummingbirds to honeybees.

Crops failed, oxygen levels fell and carbon-dioxide levels rose to a point where the Biospherians gasped increasingly thin air inside the 1.3 hectares of domes. Professor Wallace Broecker of Columbia University eventually traced the cause to a glut of organic material, such as peat and compost, which triggered explosive growth of oxygen-eating bacteria which, in turn, produced a rush of carbon dioxide. Surprisingly, it was soaked up by the structure's concrete.

He blamed Biosphere 2's environmental zealots who chose the intuitive wisdom of organic gardening over scientific advice.

The crew eventually split into two factions and hoarded stolen food. The project's Scientific Advisory Committee quit. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and the need to pump in large amounts of oxygen cast doubt on the claims that they were creating an eight-storey mini-world. "Basically, we suffocated, starved and went mad," said Jane Poynter, one of the Biospherians.

Despite the problems, they emerged in 1993. To survive two years on food they grew was remarkable.

But they remained tight-lipped about the gremlins that had bedeviled the effort to mimic the Earth's natural balance. After six months, a second crew entered.

Criticisms mounted that the project's leaders had neither the academic credentials nor the scientific experience. Project workers quit amid personality clashes. Two members of the first crew were arrested for a protest against a change in management in which they opened the sealed enclosure to let in outside air.

Bass "finally got fed up by the incompetence and lack of forthrightness," his spokesman Terrell Lamb said at the time. Allegations of mismanagement and a battle for control by Bass finally ended the effort to create true self sufficiency.

To restore its reputation, Bass wanted to throw open the glass domes to the scientific world. He found a white knight in Columbia University.

The university took the test-tube Earth under its wing in 1996, hoping that its Ivy League pedigree would attract top researchers. It began retooling the facility and inculcating an academic culture, calling Biosphere 2 its "western campus" in 1998.

The project moved from survivability to sustainability. Allen's vision to test the feasibility of future space colonies wasn't mentioned any more. In 1999, Columbia extended its commitment until 2010 and pledged an additional $US20million ($A26million) for the first five years.

Bass himself committed $US30million more to support the activities.

Biosphere 2's coral reef allowed scientists to quantify the harmful effect of carbon dioxide on the rate of coral growth for the first time. Flaws were fixed. Peer-reviewed scientific papers began to appear - now about a couple of dozen in all - and its credibility ratings rose. Over the years, thousands of students visited the project.

But a year ago, Columbia's new president, Lee Bollinger, announced that the university was "reviewing" its relationship with Biosphere 2. That led to a suit by Decisions Investments Corp, Bass's Fort Worth, Texas, company, which accused Columbia of failing to live up to its contract to operate the facility until 2010.

As part of an out-of-court settlement, Columbia announced in December that it would walk away from Biosphere 2 - just as it seemed to be delivering on its original promise.

The journal Science reported that this came as a heavy blow to Barry Osmond, an Australian-born plant physiologist, who was removed as Biosphere 2's president and executive director. He is sworn to secrecy by his severance package.

The move was short-sighted, said Dr Joseph Berry of the Carnegie Institute of Washington's laboratory in Palo Alto, California, collaborator on a Biosphere 2-based study of photosynthesis. "A project that I was very committed to, and which I put a lot of time and passion into, has failed & I am devastated."

One factor that led to its demise was Columbia's business plan, which rested heavily on an unrealistic hope that the US Department of Energy would adopt the site as a national facility. Another was that the science at the facility was "not spectacular enough", admitted Berry. And it was still dogged by its reputation. "People made jokes about our research proposals, even good ones."

In May, an energy department panel concluded that Biosphere 2 was "a facility in search of questions" and gave it a lower priority than existing projects. The bubble was in trouble: Biosphere 2 had turned into an unsustainable project about sustainability.

Tourists still pay to visit the inspirational facility north of Tucson. DIC is now exploring "all viable options for the property", said Lamb.

At present, it is not prepared to fund more research. If Biosphere 2 has proved anything, it is that experiments are anything but predictable.

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