You have probably heard of Biosphere 2 (so named because you are living and breathing in Biosphere 1). It is based north of Tucson, Arizona. It is an entirely gas-impermeable living environment covering 1.27 hectares with rain forest, coral reef, desert, savannah and farm ecosystems designed to support 7 or so humans in perpetuity with no external inputs except energy. The facility is a marvel of engineering (as it probably should be for its $200 million price tag).
What most people know about Biosphere 2 is how it was covered in the news when the first crew of 8 people were sealed in for two years from 1991-1993. (there was a follow-on mission for 6 months that received much less attention). Press coverage was initially favorable. But over time, squabbles within management and within the crew, two injections of oxygen that were not revealed in a transparent way and even rumors of the crew ordering pizza and opening the door to receive it during their mission took their toll, and the project was mostly treated as a joke in the press. This decaying reputation led to the need to hand the facility over to Columbia University who invested but then left (which didn’t help the reputation).
Currently, Biosphere 2 is owned and operated by the University of Arizona. Full disclosure: as somebody who was on the faculty at UA I have colleagues who include a former director and one of the current faculty at Biosphere 2 and several other faculty running experiments there now, but these ties are all related to the very recent UA management of B2 and have nothing to do with the period I am writing about (except for the paragraph on LEO below). I have visited it twice as “tourist” but also several times on scientific tours. I last visited it as a tourist during my vacation a couple of weeks ago which got me thinking about what a great contribution to ecology Biosphere 2 has made (in contradiction to its reputation).
I have argued in the past for the need for prediction in ecology (see these posts: I, II, III, IV). I have also made no secret that philosophically, I am a fan of Lakatos. Lakatos was a student of Karl Popper who rejected Popper’s notion that the main goal of science was to falsify theories. Lakatos argued that science progress when theories make predictions and these predictions are tested and confirmed. And Lakatos was quite clear that there was a spectrum from weak, boring predictions that wouldn’t sway anybody (fertilizer will increase yield) to “stunning” predictions (Newton’s predictions that Halley’s comet will return in 76 years or there will be a planet located near where Neptune was found).
In this framework, I think Biosphere 2 has to be labelled a resounding success in sticking out its collective neck and making truly “stunning” predictions*. Although these predictions in many ways did not prove true, we have (and this is the point – see especially this post of mine on prediction) learned an enormous amount from the failed predictions.
On the applied question of can we build a human-supporting self-sustained ecosystem, the answer is no, not yet. But we learned a lot. Biosphere 2 taught us that concrete takes years to fully cure (which is what was pulling the oxygen out – but something engineers did not really understand since they hadn’t built concrete in enclosed environments at any large scale before). Organic farming knowledge is essential (the first mission had nobody trained in organic farming and had many crop failures and resulting hunger – something corrected on the second mission). Attention needs to be paid to the social dynamics of small, enclosed crews.
But it is mostly the ecological failures=learnings that fascinate me.The glass blocked ultra-violet light which led to most of the pollinators congregating near the glass boundaries and dying (and the humans having to do a lot of hand pollination). The rain forest, unlike real rain forests, accumulated enormous amounts of leaf litter due to missing microbes (and then things jump started and normal high levels of litter decay are now occuring (we still haven’t figured out exactly why). The coral reef crashed and burned for reasons that are still being worked out. The trees were not exposed to wind with interesting implications for growth forms and wood density. An invasive species of ant that snuck in through the soil obliterated much of the intended insect community. And etc. An entire special volume of new research was produced in the early days, and research is ongoing. The number of questions one could and should address is limited only by funding.
One cool success where the applied and basic intersected was addressing the oxygen deficit. The oxygen deficit was seasonal and worst when the biomes were shut down for winter. The crew was able to manipulate the arid (desert and savannah biomes) by adding water at the right time to green up out of season with the rainforest (thereby releasing some oxygen) to help ameliorate the oxygen problems.
And to the University of Arizona’s credit, they are continuing in the tradition of bold, risky predictions. In the former farm biome they have built LEO (Landscape Evolution Observatory). They are building three hillslopes (each with 333 m2 of surface area and about 1,000 metric tons of soil that are massively instrumented). They are starting with virgin soil and gradually introducing biotic factors to test theories of water flow, erosion and etc. Traditionally hydrologists have had to deal either with very small trays or the real world which is not fully controlled and instrumented. This meso-scale, controlled-environment experiment has already blown holes in current models and understanding of erosion and underground water flow and they’ve only simulated one rain event!
So far, I have talked as if the applied goals (self-sustaining environment for humans) and the basic research lessons were distinct. But I actually think they are highly complementary. I think this is exactly where ecology needs to head as we become more predictive. Specifically, ecology needs to stick its neck out making risky predictions and one way to push ourselves is to be involved in eco-engineering projects (whether they be restoration or self-sustained enclosures or reserve designs or green infrastructure like green roofs, etc). I think this for two reasons.
- I think this will help the public reconnect to and appreciate ecology again. This can’t hurt our funding. But even more importantly, it can’t hurt the role of ecology in policy and the public imagination. Such places where humans and ecology interact capture the attention of and inspire the general public. Biosphere 2 has been criticized as performance art (and indeed a large number of the original participants had theater backgrounds). But maybe we need to be more aware of the performance art aspect of our science. Physicists build giant “atom smashers” and talk about “god particles”. Astronomers talk about asteroids smashing into the earth. Pulling off the moon landings gave engineers a degree of increased credibility that has lasted for generations. Where’s the exciting places ecology interacts with humans? I think eco-engineering a self-contained, human-supporting ecosystem that could be used to go to the stars is one place!
- Aside from capturing the imagination, I think eco-engineering is good for the science, even basic science. Specifically it forces us to stick our necks out and make Lakatos’ stunning predictions. Very often, these result in stunning failures. But these failures advance science just as much as the successes. Sometimes more. Again, as noted in this post, the pressure to make daily weather forecasts and bear the burden of publicly being wrong has been very good for the science of meteorology. I think it would be good for the field of ecology too.
What do you think. Should ecologists be involved in eco-engineering? Is prediction good for science? Are failed predictions good for science? What bold eco-engineering project to fire the public imagination should ecologists take on next?
*Which is not to say there weren’t a number of avoidable disasters too. There could be a whole post in itself analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of launching a project managed by two strong-willed, visionary people who had conflicting goals from the start and funded by a billionaire with all having an eye to publicity vs the much more staid, science-focused, half dozen rounds of peer review of something NSF would try to pull off.