Class Under Glass

Under new management, Biosphere 2 has become a schoolroom for planet Earth

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Biosphere 2, which began as a pioneering experiment in scientific dreams of colonizing outer space, has taken on a decidedly more down-to-earth approach.

Arizona's $200 million planet under glass in the Sonoran Desert in Oracle, Ariz., has a new manager in Columbia University, New York City. Since Columbia took over the project in November 1995 Biosphere 2's mission has been converted to that of learning more about the Earth.

Columbia will conduct experiments that look at the relationship between plants, soil, water, and atmosphere under changing global conditions. "We are basically trying to run the earth into the future and see how it works," university vice provost Michael Crow says.

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The 140,000-square-foot facility drew international attention in September 1991 when a crew of eight was sealed inside for what was to be a two-year experiment in an isolated, self-sustaining environment.

Biosphere 2 was equipped with a savannah, miniature forests, lakes, streams, and an ocean. These imitated the natural systems that sustain Earth.

The crew of Biospherians, as they were called, were to raise their own food and breathe air that was recirculated by plants living inside its chambers.

The entire mission, according to William Harris, the newly installed president and executive director , was a private-sector response to a challenge from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to design life-support systems for extended space missions to the moon and Mars.

But within 18 months, the ecosystem went out of kilter, threatening the mission and the safety of the crew. Oxygen levels decreased and carbon dioxide soared.

Then, Columbia University was called in. A Columbia scientist helped identify the problem and stabilize the oxygen levels.

That experience, Mr. Crow says, meshed with Columbia's burgeoning interest in planetary management. For 50 years, the university has run the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory station in Palisades, N.Y., one of the world's most comprehensive Earth-sciences centers.

"It is from that experience, and from our experience in doing other things in biodiversity areas, that we've realized we needed to move in this new direction," Crow says.

Since Columbia announced it was taking over Biosphere 2, significant changes have taken place. For example, the facility's interior architecture is being subdivided for various experiments.

One key project is creating a model where carbon dioxide levels will be more than doubled from current levels found in the Earth's atmosphere.

Increased levels of carbon dioxide are blamed for changes in climate patterns known as "global warming." But evidence is inconclusive, and Columbia hopes that the experiment will provide more solid data on the impact of carbon dioxide on Earth, especially that caused by humans.

Another change is that educational programs are being run at the site. Students from around the country can take part in "Earth Semester," a 4-1/2-month long interdisciplinary program for people interested in science as well as policy decisions.

The first class drew about 50 students this fall. The university eventually hopes to have about 100 students each semester.

Crow and others are reluctant to call Biosphere 2's original colonization experiment a failure. Rather, says Peter Warshall, a Tucson, Ariz., ecologist who designed its savannah ecosystem, Biosphere 2 was "an expensive learning process."

But an analysis of the Biosphere 2 experiment, written by a Columbia scientist for the journal Science and published last November says the project failed because carbon dioxide molecules became chemically bound to the interior concrete walls, thereby eating up oxygen.

The interior environment, the study says, became one where weedy vines, ants, cockroaches, and katydids thrived, despite the best efforts of the eight-member crew to get them under control. But, Mr. Warshall points out, the experiment did succeed in discovering two species that had never before been seen on Earth.

The program also became mired in legal wrangles. In April 1994 after a management shakeup, two of the Biospherians upset with the changes were accused of sabotaging ongoing experiments in retaliation, a charge they denied. A jury later awarded the Biospherians a total of $520,000 in lost wages for breach of contract.

Indeed, before Columbia's acquisition of the facility, Biosphere 2 was criticized as being more of a publicity gimmick than a site for legitimate scientific research. Columbia's acquisition, however, has lent new prestige to the facility. And with it, Mr. Harris says, come enhanced opportunities for federal research grants.

With the facility's troubled past behind it, Columbia officials hope Biosphere 2 can be a place where scientists and the public can interact to find out how to become better stewards of the Earth and its resources.

Recently, the Biospherians' living quarters were separated from the glassed-in biomes and are now open for public viewing. Also on public display is a hands-on exhibit showing climate changes and how humans can affect them. The display was created for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and has now found a permanent home at Biosphere 2.

A cafe on the site allows visitors to sample Biosphere food. And a hotel, a carry-over from the early days of Biosphere 2, offers several dozen guest suites.

Meanwhile, Crow says of the challenges ahead, "The management of the planet, rightly or wrongly, has fallen on us as a species. We are already managing it, we are already affecting it. We just aren't doing a very good job. We either need to know what we are doing and do it differently, or we need to take on the management task of trying to control what we are doing to the planet, but in a very different way."

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