Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wednesday, Nov 17th, Biosphere2 and Mt. Lemon


Like most environmentalists over 40, I remember the Biosphere2 experiment.  Take eight scientists who want to live in a self-contained, giant geodesic structure in the desert, growing their own food in an ark-like world, and see how long they can last.  Answer = two years and 20 minutes.

Today we visited Biosphere2 near Oracle, Arizona.  First, it's bigger than I thought it was.  And it had a Texas billionaire hippy with an interest in theater and a hope for environmental spinoff products financing it ($250 million).  But it did nurture lots of ideas, and brilliant minds, and fascinating questions. It's gone through some changes of use, and management, since its heyday in the early 1990's.  Columbia University owned it for a while, Motorola used it for an executive retreat to mellow out anti-social executives ("the Charm School").

Currently, it's being operated under a 10-year lease to the University of Arizona.  The billionaire who built it (Ed Bass, of the Texas oil billionaire brothers), finally sold it in 2007 to some local developers for $50 million.  They've submitted plans to build 1,500 homes around it (CDO Ranches and Development Company).  But it's being used for some noble experiments on the impact of rain on hill slopes, plants, and soil conditions.  There is also serious drought studies following up on global warming being done.   And guess who's still paying for most of this? (Ed Bass).  Jane Poynter, one of the original biospherists, wrote a book on their experience, titled "The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere2".  In it, she says she thinks Ed always had a heart of gold, and never did make any money on his Biosphere2 adventures.

After leaving Biosphere2, we decided (on the advise of some friends) to take the road from Oracle to the top of Mount Lemon.  It looked like a road on the map, and had a glimmer of actual pavement for part of the way.  It turned out to be an ascending hell (2,000 feet to 8,000 summit) of the worst boulder pocketed, twisting road I ever driven.  The pavement was from the top back down to Tucson, a beautiful drive in the sunset which was probably what our friends were recommending.  I am so glad the Touareg can be elevated so we could get over the rocks, has the power and agility to climb such steep grades and hang on narrow turns, and even more thankful the tires withstood the sharp rock edges.    This is one backroad adventure Pat and I will remember for a long time.  Thanks, Steve!

And here's a link to all of the photos I took today: Biosphere2


Here's the more detailed background from (All there is and then some).  Thanks much to Ruth, Cody, Jeff and Wolf.

Home Developer Buys Biosphere 2, Its Adjacent 1,650 Acres

Biosphere 2 originally was created as an experiment in enclosed self-sufficiency.
Its unusual structures remain a tourist destination today.
by Eric Swedlund
Twenty years after Biosphere 2 broke ground near Oracle, the one-of-a-kind terrarium and its surrounding land have been sold for $50 million.  Development of 1,500 new homes and a resort hotel on the land has already been approved.  Announced Monday, the sale price is just a quarter of the $200 million construction cost of the 3.15-acre miniworld, which drew global attention in 1991 when 8 people were sealed inside to conduct a 2-year experiment in self-sufficiency.
The 1,658-acre sale was announced by Jerry A Hawkins, vice president of CB Richard Ellis Tucson, who negotiated on behalf of purchaser CDO Ranching & Development, LP.  The company's partners include Tucson developer Peter G Backus and Martin C Bowen, who was vice president of Biosphere seller Decisions Investment Corporation.  The property was formally put up for sale in early 2005 and last year was under contract by local developer Fairfield Homes, but that deal was called off by mutual agreement.  Along the way, the University of Arizona began eyeing the facility as a laboratory for large-scale climate experiments, and last year the university was negotiating to acquire the Biosphere 2 as part of the sale.  The UA is still negotiating, now with hopes of leasing the terrarium, said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science.
The CDO Ranch development has already been approved for more than 1,500 homes, a resort hotel and commercial uses, with lot availability projected for mid-2009, Hawkins said.  Pinal County Supervisor Lionel Ruiz, whose district includes the Biosphere 2 land, said the development will be good for the area but must be approached cautiously and be well-planned.  "I don't want to see just a whole bunch of rooftops from Tucson all the way to Oracle," he said.  "We want to see sustained communities and some open spaces and wildlife corridors.  Like anything else, if they come in with proper plans, it'll make it a plus."  Ruiz said the development could be an economic boon to the southern part of Pinal County, which has a shortage of medical care available and a struggling economic base dependent on mining.  "What I see it bringing to the county is services and jobs," he said.  "It's going to be very unique, and it's going to be a plus for the area, especially if it's going to be a destination."  He also supports the UA taking over the Biosphere 2 and maintaining it as a laboratory.
The terrarium's future is also on the mind of Texas billionaire Ed Bass, co-founder and now-former owner of Biosphere 2, whose only comment Monday came in a short statement relayed from his spokeswoman Terrell Lamb.  "I am hopeful that CDO will have success in attracting significant institutional participation in Biosphere 2 for research and educational purposes," Bass said.  The announcement of the purchase said the "Biosphere 2 facility will continue to remain open to visitors for tours," and said there will be continued educational and research uses, but made no mention of specific research or any potential leases of the facility.
Attempts to reach Backus and Bowen were unsuccessful late Monday and when reached at home after business hours, Hawkins declined to comment further.
The original Biosphere 2 experiment was widely criticised after a crew member was sent for medical attention 13 days after being sealed in and later air was pumped into the facility.  Columbia University began managing Biosphere 2 as a research laboratory in 1996 but ended its involvement in 2003.
Source: Arizona Daily Star 5 June 2007 photo source: Jim Davis / Arizona Daily Star 2003

Biosphere 2 Saved from Developer's Bulldozers

The state-of-the-art Biosphere 2 campus is located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, 35 miles from the UA campus.
UA will manage and operate the controlled-environment facility itself, along with three conference rooms that can seat
from 40 to 120 participants, a suite of 36 dual-occupancy offices, and modern housing facilities in a "village"
of 28 furnished 3- to 5-bedroom casitas with fully equipped kitchens. The campus is fully networked.
by Michael Reilly
Biosphere 2, the world’s largest, quirkiest monument to modern science will be preserved as a unique environmental laboratory for at least 3 years, the University of Arizona, US, announced.  A sale earlier in June put the 3.14-acre site in the hands of residential developers, leading to fears the facility would be bulldozed.  But the university has now leased the property for scientific research with the aid of gifts and grants, and funds permitting, will try to extend the lease for 10 years.  Nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona, the great glass greenhouse was built 20 years ago by Space Biosphere Ventures as an artificial closed ecological system.  When, in 1991, eight people were sealed inside, it was hailed as a dry run for building a colony on Mars.  But 2 years later, when the same 8 emerged emaciated from poor diets and embittered by infighting, critics were quick to call the project a failure.
Columbia University took over managing the facility from 1996 until 2003, and turned it into a massive laboratory, where researchers built huge models of ecosystems found in the natural world, from a forest of cottonwood trees to a desert and coral reef.  Because of its size, Biosphere 2 allowed researchers to bridge the gap between smaller traditional laboratories and the outside world, over which they have little control.  Under the glass they could tweak CO2 levels and play with annual rainfall, then watch how the plants and animals responded.
Travis Huxman and colleagues at the University of Arizona hope to follow the Columbia researchers' work.  They plan to use the unique lab setting to examine the role that plants play in the water cycle of savannah grassland and scrub brush ecosystems - both of which are found in the deserts in the southwest US.  "We will be looking at the problem of vegetation change.  When an ecosystem changes from grassland to woody shrubs, it affects the water and carbon cycle," Huxman says.  As much as 1/3 of the world’s landmass is covered by savannah and scrub and it is important to know how shifts between the two can affect the availability of water.  The findings should also provide valuable data to build into climate models that predict how the planet will respond to global warming.
Jane Poynter, a member of the original 1991 crew of 8 and president of Paragon Space Development Corporation, says that the university may also be considering research into astrobiology, reviving the extraterrestrial aspirations that built Biosphere 2.  "I think the new research is going back to the roots of what we were trying to do originally," Poynter says.  "So I’m very excited about it."
Source: 27 June 2007

Arizona Starts Research Initiative At Biosphere 2

"The generous gift from the Philecology Foundation, founded by Edward P Bass, substantially expands the University's ability to link teaching, scholarship and creativity to the needs of Arizona and our larger global community," President Robert Shelton said.  "Biosphere 2 will provide our faculty and students exceptional opportunities to address major environmental challenges facing Arizona and the Southwest such as global climate change, sustainability of water resources and land-use change.  UA excels at the collaborative, multidisciplinary approach these global scientific issues require."...
The controlled-environment facility, 3.14 acres (1.27 hectares) in area, is sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton (453,600 kg) welded stainless steel liner; 91 feet (28 metres) at its highest point, it has 6,500 windows that enclose a volume of 7.2 million cubic feet (204,000 cubic metres) under glass.  One initial experiment addresses key interactions between plants and water.  Within the facility, the researchers will build 3 hill slopes, each about 32 yards (30 metres) long and 22 yards (20 metres) wide, to test how water moves down, into and across the slopes.  "Then we will introduce plants and ask how having life on a landscape changes the behaviour of water, both in the air and in the soil," Huxman said.  "We are interested in how plants modify their environment - how they change the amount of time a water molecule spends in the soil and how that affects the biogeochemical reactions that happen in soil only when it is wet."  The plants, grasses and shrubs, will be typical of the desert, grassland and savannah ecosystems that cover more than 1/2 of Arizona and about 1/3 of the Earth's total land area...
In the 1800s, the property was part of the Samaniego's CDO Ranch.  After several changes of ownership, it became a conference center in the 1960s and 1970s, first for Motorola, then for the UA.  Space Biospheres Ventures bought the property in 1984 and began construction of the current facility in 1986.  Human missions 1 and 2 lasted from 1991 - 1994.  In 1994, Decisions Investments Corporation took over the property and Columbia University managed it from 1996 - 2003.  The property was sold 4 June 2007, to CDO Ranching and Development, LP.

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