A paneless window offers a view from an overhead walkway onto the artificial ocean of the Biosphere 2 Center, or B2C. It's a strange and fascinating sight, here under the Santa Catalina Mountains near dry little Oracle, Ariz., about 30 miles north of Tucson. Except for the walls and ceiling of glass triangles that enclose this million-gallon simulation of a Caribbean-type sea, the only obvious, unnatural object is a vacuum pump that provides a tidal pulse at the 25-foot deep end. Near the shallow end, a coral reef rises above the waterline, enfolding a lagoon, a beach, even a few palms. Angelfish, parrot fish, and sergeant majors are among the 300 fish that inhabit this self-sustaining environment, alongside crustaceans, sea-urchins, sponges, and algae.

The ocean biome is only one section of a 3.15-acre greenhouse, the world's biggest such controlled experimental site. There is also an equatorial rainforest, desert, savannah, marsh,...

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