Images: Phil Pauley
In the late 1980s, everyone was worried about immanent nuclear holocaust. That, and the environmentalists were fretting about resource depletion: we were either going to nuke the planet raw, or pick it clean.
So it makes a kind of sense that an apocalypse-fearing oil billionaire gave $200 million to a team of engineers and researchers to build a 3-acre-spanning, completely airtight, steel-and-glass spaceship-shaped biosphere in the middle of the Arizona desert. The aim of Biosphere 2 was to prep humanity for off-world colonization.
Now, twenty years later, it also makes sense that the vision has evolved—in 2010, a British designer named Phil Pauley unveiled a proposal for Sub-Biosphere 2, an underwater version of its desert forebear. It's essentially a blueprint for a sealed, self-sustaining submersible society—a place to seek refuge when the globe warms and sea levels rise.
The first Biosphere-2 (named such because, sigh, the Earth is Biosphere-1) was designed to allow humans to survive off-planet—Sub-Biosphere-2 was dreamt up to help us survive this one.
Pauley explains on the project website that his sea-faring dome system is meant to be a "self sustainable underwater habitat designed for aquanauts, tourism and oceanographic life sciences and longterm human, plant and animal habitation."
While the original Biosphere-2 had just five habitats, the sequel, as is so often the case, will have more. Eight in all. It, too, is intended to be totally self-refulating. Sub-Biosphere-2, Pauley writes, "sustains all its life support systems for air, water, food, electricity, and other resources through its innovative control of variant atmospheric pressures that occur at depth."
It's also intended to serve as a seed bank, a kind of botanical Noah's Ark for when the flood comes down: "SBS2 is a seed bank with eight Living Biomes to allow human, plant and fresh water interaction, powered and controlled by the Central Support Biome which monitors the life systems from within its own operations facility."
Here's a look at the stats Pauley offers for the proposal:
There you have it; a 40-story biospheric dome structure set out to sea.
Of course, the first efforts to man the Biosphere-2 crashed and burned: After two years of being sealed inside, fights broke out between the 8 inhabitants, secret gas-regulating machinery was discovered, and the experiment ended in bitter chaos.
Were it not for Columbia and University of Arizona scientists taking over the operation and using the massive, climate-controlled living space to carry out actual, ground-breaking research on things like global warming and ocean acidification, it would have gone down as one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of science.
But Pauley is undeterred by the pioneer project's stumblings. According to a 2010 Gizmag report, the designer was still seeking funding from investors to finance SBS2. There's been no subsequent announcement, so we can assume the search goes on. In the meanwhile, however, Pauley has snagged some high-profile design work for the government of Saudi Arabia, which wants him to build a biome filled with rainforest in the nation's oily desert.
And even if it does seem that an underwater Biosphere would be even more disaster prone than the original, there's merit nonetheless in design work like this. Like its predecessor, SBS2 is not unlike the best kind of science fiction—even if it stays fiction, it's pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking. Beyond prompting us to admire Pauley's sheer audacity, thought experiments and concept designs like this help us better comprehend the gravity of the problems they're built to address.