Friday, June 29, 2007

As if it’s needed, here’s one more nail for the EarthPork coffin

While visiting Arizona last week, I took advantage of the opportunity to tour a forerunner of the PorkForest EarthPork known as Biosphere II, or more commonly, the Biosphere. The Biosphere is a $150 million project built in the late 1980’s to gather information that will be necessary if humans ever decide to build self-sufficient colonies on the Moon or Mars. The cost of the project is not directly comparable to EarthPork’s estimated cost because its designers went to a huge amount of trouble and expense to completely seal off its contents from any contact with the outside atmosphere. Eight people lived inside for two years, subsisting entirely on what they grew and recycling the air and water that was sealed in with them. A second ten-month mission was aborted in 1994 because the inhabitants were spending all their time maintaining the equipment and growing vegetables and had no time left to perform the research that was ostensibly their purpose.

The facility has been open to tourists since 1991, although in the early years no one could enter the buildings. Now all visitors are given an “under-the-glass” guided tour as part of their $19.95 (plus tax) admission. My one-hour tour group consisted of 16 adults, a toddler, one infant and one guide. As far as I could tell, we eighteen were the only visitors on the premises during that hour. The facility had welcomed its two-millionth visitor in 2004, which works out to about 43 per hour, assuming a ten-hour day, so attendance must have fallen off somewhat since the glory days.

Tell me again; how many daily visitors are expected to the PorkForest?

The facility’s primary use now is for research on climate change allegedly caused by increases in carbon dioxide. It does seem ideal for that purpose, as temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the air can theoretically be controlled. However, I noticed some of the glass panels had been removed allowing a free exchange of air with the outside, and plants are still growing like crazy.

The site outside Tucson was selected because it gets 360 days of sunshine per year and the plants growing in the five biomes need a lot of sunshine in order to continue converting CO2 to oxygen. When the tour guide laid this fact on us, I wondered how many grow-lights are planned for EarthPork. Walking through an Arizona greenhouse in June is a lot like walking outdoors in Arizona in June. It costs a lot to cool the Biosphere; Earthpork’s heating and cooling bills would be tremendous.

The tour did not include the rain forest biome, the one I most wanted to see. When I asked why not, I was told that they had just never put a walkway through that area – the largest biome in the facility. I have to suspect there may be other reasons such as heat, humidity, dangerous slippery walking surfaces and interference with the rain forest’s frequent need for, uh, rain.

I also asked why we weren’t bothered by mosquitoes in the more humid biomes. The answer was, “Where would they come from? We’re in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Have you seen any mosquitoes?” The Biosphere is a closed environment which only includes the flora and fauna they want, unlike some similar project in Iowa might be.

My conclusion, based on my admittedly limited sample, is that if an indoor rain forest, given the advantage of plenty of sunshine and a nearby population center of one million people can’t generate enough tourism interest to even justify building a walkway through it, the idea of putting one in Iowa is as silly as I thought it was the first time I heard of it.