Greenhouse Defect

Geochemist Wallace Broecker once voiced this astute observation about Biosphere 2:

"To run three acres of land without God is really complicated."
There's no debating a statement like that, but getting into the minibar in Room 16 at the Biosphere Hotel is not without its own level of complexity.

And it doesn't take a geochemist to tell you this, all it takes is a journalist. One who was awake sometime past midnight last week trying to wedge his room key into the lock of the thing, one who couldn't raise anyone at the front desk, one who could not find a bendable coat hanger or any other contraption with which to pry it open. One who, like Broecker, invoked God, repeatedly petitioning him to damn the apparently sealed-'til-doomsday minibar.

That was me. All I wanted was a beer and a bag of chips, maybe some Mr. Boston Bloody Mary mix, something to take the edge off my nervous anticipation over the activities awaiting me the next morning.

I was going to enter Biosphere 2.
Which I did--and I'll tell you all about it.
But I never did get into the minibar. And when you're a guest at the Biosphere Hotel (sometimes referred to as The Inn at Biosphere), it's not like you can just drive a couple blocks to a Circle K for your life-sustaining necessities. For, as the name might imply, the Biosphere Hotel is located next to Biosphere 2. That location is miles away from the nearest town, in a secluded patch of desert at the end of a private road behind two guardhouses, a number of speed bumps and three cattle guards.

Yet the tourists are coming, especially since prestigious Columbia University of New York took over management in January '96 and opened the Biosphere structure itself to the public for the first time last November. The university's aim was to provide "new educational, research and visitors programs," according to the Biosphere 2 brochure that I found in my hotel room, apparently in lieu of a Gideon Bible. "New exhibits have been developed. And computers in the on-site Cyber Cafe now let visitors cruise the Internet to learn more about our complex planet and its environment."

Ah, the Cyber Cafe. When they tire of cruising, visitors can also purchase CDs of Jazz Loon, Beethoven Naturally, Summer Breeze, Dolphin Dreams or Early Morning in Rain Forest. Or Biosphere 2 squeeze bottles, mugs, mouse pads, even a refrigerator magnet with your name on it. Unless you have a very popular name that is temporarily out of stock--"John," for instance--in which case you might have to settle for the more intrepid-sounding "Johnny."

But Biosphere offers much more than marketing trinkets and an otherworldly college campus. Despite the stubborn minibar, my hotel room was large and plush with a king-size bed, cable TV and a fabulous view of the Santa Catalina Mountains featuring snowcapped Mount Lemmon.

Tennis, anyone? When you want to put down the slide rule, slip out of the pocket protector and take a break from learning about that pesky greenhouse effect, there are two courts waiting for you to slap the Spalding. They're right next to the swimming pool, shaped like an enormous organically fed kidney, adjacent to the Biofair.

Yes, the Biofair. Bring the whole family and enjoy "interactive science activities" such as the Eco-Maze, Chaotic Pendulum, 6-Foot Tornado, Aeolian Landscape and Soap Bubbles.

All of which pale in comparison to the main attraction. Call it a New Age research-and-education facility, call it the unique ecological laboratory on the planet, call it one of the oddest resorts that will ever grace a travel brochure; it is Biosphere 2.

It sits there on 3.15 acres of desert, looking like a mix between Reverend Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral and the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland. And it really is a small world, after all, one with the moxie to name itself after the big one it was created to ape. (In case you didn't know, "Biosphere 1" is another name for the planet Earth.)

No. 2 boasts five self-sustaining communities of living organisms, or "biomes," as they say in spherese. There's a rain forest, desert, savannah, marsh, ocean and more than 3,000 species of those aforementioned organisms growing, multiplying and doing pretty much the same things that they'd be doing "out there" in Biosphere 1.

Though most Arizona residents probably know the history backward and forward, here's a brief refresher on Biosphere Deux:

It was built with the money from oil-heir millionaire Edward Bass by a group--some say "cult"--led by John "Johnny Dolphin" Allen. He used the big Bass bucks to purchase the brains and expertise of scientists from the Smithsonian, Yale University, the New York Botanical Gardens and the University of Arizona, among others.

Then on September 26, 1991, eight Biosphereans entered the "human enclosure" for a two-year period on an internationally acclaimed mission to live independently of the Earth's atmosphere. They imported plants, animals and insects, grew their own food, recycled their own waste, developed their own life-support chain. The Biosphereans' goal was to determine how to preserve and control the planet's life systems, information that would come in handy if we ever need to set up shop on Mars.

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