The Ecosphere,

a self-sustainable shrimp tank

(…) the world’s first totally enclosed ecosystem – a complete, self-contained and self-sustaining miniature world encased in glass(…) you never have to feed the life within.

The Ecosphere is not only a water tank with a few red shrimp, bacteria, and some algae. Actually, it is the succesful result of serious research on managing closed ecosystems.

In brief, an ecosytem is a community of living beings, plus their habitat. When an ecosystem exchanges energy, but only energy with the outside, it is said to be a closed ecosystem. In this way, the Earth as a whole fits the description, but not a fish tank, for instance: one has to be constantly providing the fish with food and filtering their poo. In a closed ecosystem, there´s an inner balance in between the elements inside, so that an optimum equilibrium is reached.

Equilibrium. That’s the key. Think on the so called “Sneeze effect”: I sneeze today in Canada (cold country, warm people!). This is something unexpected, both for the Earth and for me. I may get a cold, but my sneeze may have caused a series of chain reactions, disadjusting the whole atmosphere (If a butterfly can, why not me?). The Earth will thus struggle to recover its lost equilibrium and many side effects may happen, from typhoons in several puddles along Gilford to unexpected sunny days in California.

With the explanation above I tried to highlight the that designing a functional closed complex ecosytem is not an easy thing. As with the butterfly effect, minimal differences in the initial conditions within the system may lead to completely different results. Even when those conditions are measured and controlled, it is very hard to predict whether the sytem will stay balanced in the long term. In the case of the Earth, although we can see the big picture (I’m sure that in the following twenty days it will rain in Santiago de Compostela), we can’t accurately say if it will rain in Santiago twenty days from now. And although we know that the planet is somehow reacting to the many big-scale interferences humans are making in the system, there´s still controversy as to how will it try to achieve a new equilibrium, and if it will. (for now, it seems to be getting hotter).

Let´s go back to the Ecosphere. I guess that those shrimps, bacteria and algae now look like heroes, don´t they? The ads say that the sphere is expected to “stay alive” for at least two years, and to me that definitely is a success (do you still think it is no big deal? listen to my story… when I was little and I went to the beach in the summer, I used to catch some shrimp in the rocks, then keep them in a bucket. Eventually I would put some algae too. Their average survival time was… not much). A spaceship can be a closed ecosystem, too. If the astronauts orbit the Earth in the Space Station they receive supplies from time to time, but long missions involve finding ways to be self sufficient. That’s why the Ecosphere was researched by the NASA, and also why Carl Sagan was so enthusiastic about it. Of course, the Ecosphere is much less complex than a spaceship, but it is a good starting point. The Biosphere2 always made my jaw drop when I watched pictures from it in the magazines, but I will make sure that my grandsons, and the grandsons of my grandsons, remember you shrimp when they have to leave the planet before it explodes.

By the way, the Ecospheres are not always small, and not always spherical. The fact that I love eating shrimp adds to the paradox.

Related Article: The mega fish tank! (This one is definitely big).

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