The Biospherians

“CORAL reefs grow in a great swath that stretches like a belt around the belly of the earth, from thirty degrees north to thirty degrees south latitude. After the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s second-largest reef is off the coast of Belize. There are extensive coral reefs in the tropical Pacific, in the Indian Ocean, and in the Red Sea, and many smaller ones in the Caribbean. Yet curiously enough, the first evidence that CO2 could kill a reef came from Arizona, from the self-enclosed, supposedly self-sufficient world known as Biosphere 2.”

“A three-acre, glassed-in structure shaped like a ziggurat, Biosphere 2 was built in the late nineteen-eighties by a private group largely funded by the billionaire Edward Bass. It was intended to demonstrate how life on earth—Biosphere 1—could be re-created on, say, Mars. The building contained a “rainforest,” a “desert,” an “agricultural zone,” and an artificial “ocean.” The first group of Biospherians, four men and four women, remained sealed inside the place for two years. They grew all of their own food and, for a stretch, breathed only recycled air. Still, the project was widely considered a failure. The Biospherians spent much of their time hungry, and, even more ominously, they lost control of their artificial atmosphere. “In the various “ecosystems,” decomposition, which takes up oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide, was supposed to be balanced by photosynthesis, which does the reverse. For reasons mainly having to do with the richness of the soil that had been imported into the “agricultural zone,” decomposition won out. Oxygen levels inside the building fell sharply, and the Biospherians developed what amounted to altitude sickness. Carbon dioxide levels, meanwhile, soared. Eventually, they reached three thousand parts per million, roughly eight times the levels outside.”

“Biosphere 2 officially collapsed in 1995, and Columbia University took over the management of the building. The “ocean,” a tank the size of an Olympic swimming pool, was by this point a wreck: most of the fish it had been stocked with were dead, “and the corals were just barely hanging on. A marine biologist named Chris Langdon was assigned the task of figuring out something educational to do with the tank. His first step was to adjust the water chemistry. Not surprisingly, given the high CO2 content of the air, the pH of the “ocean” was low. Langdon tried to fix this, but strange things kept happening. Figuring out why became something of an obsession. After a while, Langdon sold his house in New York and moved to Arizona, so that he could experiment on the “ocean” full-time.

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