/ 12 April 2005

The amazing Biosphere 2 is up for sale

If you have a cool $150-million to spare, you might want to take a look at one of the most intriguing and unique property deals on the planet.

Biosphere 2, the audacious attempt by Texas billionaire Ed Bass to build a structure that would replicate the entire ecosystem of planet Earth, is up for sale.

The amazing steel and glass structure in the southern Arizona desert cost about $200-million when it was built in 1991, which makes the offer a steal considering booming property values over the past decade and a half.

It was, and despite many leaks still is, the most airtight structure ever built.

Covering over 1,2 hectares, the building looks like a Mayan pyramid re-imagined by a sci-fi freak, with over 6 000 massive glass panels towering to a height of about 30 metres.

Biosphere 2 was designed to serve as an environmental research facility and the prototype for a space colony. It was considered by many to be one of the engineering marvels of the modern world.

But in the 14 years since its construction, the overriding lesson has been learnt: replicating Biosphere 1, the planet Earth, is an immensely complex undertaking — so complex, in fact, that Biosphere 2 is no longer involved in serious science, ever since Columbia University pulled its research teams out last year.

Now it’s being sold as something you might see at Disneyland.

The world’s largest greenhouse, with its artificial rain forest, deserts, savannahs, farming regions and miniature ocean, has opened its airlocks and doors, allowing tourists to get an inside view of what was one of the grandest experiments in recent scientific history.

Nestled in a lush desert valley at the foot of the jagged red Santa Catalina Mountains, Biosphere 2 attracted huge interest when it opened. The idea was to create a miniature, self-sustaining world in a giant bubble.

Four men and four women were sealed inside for two years.

Without any input from the outside world they would produce their own oxygen, grow their own food, recycle their own water and keep their fragile little ecosphere in balance.

But from the moment the airlocks were sealed on the eight humans and 3 800 other species of animals and plants, things began to go awry. Two years of el Nino covered the usually pristine Arizona skies with endless days of clouds that blocked a quarter of the usual solar rays.

The photosynthesis of oxygen-giving plants slowed sharply. The hummingbirds and bumblebees started to die and plants didn’t get pollinated. Crops failed, the chickens hardly laid eggs and soon the larger animals also began to die.

The human guinea pigs were also suffering. They didn’t have enough oxygen, food or patience, and the tension among the little group was almost unbearable.

”Basically, we suffocated, starved and went mad,” Jane Poynter, one of the Biospherians, was widely quoted as saying.

Most of the group saw drastic weight reductions because of the austere food production and diet regime supervised by Dr Roy Walford. The oldest Biospherian, Walford believed that a low-calorie diet was the key to longevity. For breakfast, they ate gruel made of sorghum, wheat or rice, washed down with herbal tea.

Lunch was a salad of greens and papayas, maybe with a little rice and beans. Dinner was more of the same, accompanied by sweet potatoes, beets and bananas.

”On paper, we were all getting healthier,” says Linda Leigh, a botanist who managed the ”wilderness” areas. ”But it was hard to find enough energy each day to get through our tasks. We had to work really hard to keep everything going, and we weren’t getting enough to eat.”

The frayed nerves of hunger were exacerbated by a lack of oxygen. A year after the start of the experiment, the percentage fell from a normal 21% to 14,5%, roughly the equivalent of living at 17 000 feet.

In the age of Survivor and other reality TV shows that thrive on throwing stressed-out human beings together, the outcome now seems inevitable and familiar.

The small society became wracked by division, arguing over food and work and splitting into two antagonistic tribes. One wanted to bring in more oxygen and food; the others wanted to plow under some of Biosphere’s ”wilderness” areas for food production and make do with less oxygen. Eventually project managers decided to pump 80 000 cubic metres of oxygen into Biosphere

”We were all standing in front of the vents when it came in,” Leigh said. ”It made a big difference right away. It was like a dark cloud was lifted.”

But the oxygen boost had a heavy price — an admission that the ultimate objective of creating a self-sustaining eco-sphere had failed.

Nevertheless, the intrepid group of pioneers served out their two years, and another group later served seven months inside the structure.

Then Columbia University took over the project, overseeing valuable research in earth sciences and climate control until it, too, backed out in 2003.

Since then, ambitious science has been replaced by tawdry tourism. About 85 000 visitors made the trek to the site last year, to gain a unique insight into the abandoned scheme and its magnificent structures.

But now even the on-site hotel is shuttered, five of the six gift shops are closed and the only animals you are likely to see on your 90 minute tour through the indoor swamps, deserts, savannahs and cramped living quarters are the giant ants that now seem to rule the place.

Nevertheless, project manager Christopher Bannon, the general manager, believes that Biosphere 2 represents a compelling proposition to a savvy investor.

”This is one of the most spectacular properties in Southern Arizona — if not the most spectacular — so we think it should attract some interest,” he said. ”We’re looking at everything from government entities, universities and private schools, to church groups, resorts and spas as potential owners. We’d love to see Biosphere 2 used as a research activity, but we know that may not be the end result.” – Sapa-DPA