Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Imagine the tropics at The Forks

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Winter is hard upon us and dreams of escape to somewhere sunny and hot are already beginning to take shape. However, the German city of Leipzig has done something spectacular with those dreams -- it has created a 1.5-hectare, indoor tropical wonderland where people can go to escape the cold and snow for a few hours.

Named "Gondwanaland" for the supercontinent that existed 200 million years ago, this hot and humid biosphere is a self-contained ecosystem. Made with an attractive frame of cantilevered steel and glass and reaching a height of 34 metres, it is more than big enough for towering tropical trees. Add an innovative heating and insulation system that admits plenty of natural light, including the ultra-violet needed for healthy foliage, and you can completely forget you are indoors -- that is until you leave and are hit with a 40-degree temperature drop!

Visiting this past March in weather similar to Winnipeg's, I wandered through a tropical rainforest next to a slowly moving river on which a small boat of tourists drifted by. Frogs and water dragons were to be seen beneath a canopy of exotic trees and, in places, steam arose around various unusual flowers and ferns in the 30 C heat. Ocelots, pygmy hippopotami and monkeys were just a few of the inhabitants. After crossing above the forest on a rope suspension bridge, I thankfully encountered a restaurant and cooled off on the patio with an ice cream and cold beer.

Not surprisingly, Gondwanaland has proved very popular with both Leipzigers and tourists, getting rave reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor. However, my visit set me wondering whether this could this work in Winnipeg, and, in particular, whether it could succeed at The Forks. With innovative architecture, a biosphere like Leipzig's could act as an unusual and sophisticated counterpoint to the human rights museum, providing lessons about our interactions with our environment as opposed to one another. It could also be a counterpoint, in a very different sense, to the zoo's Journey to Churchill. (It would presumably need an organizational connection with the zoo, and as a secondary advantage there, could be used to point tourists in the zoo's direction.)

Leipzig is slightly smaller than Winnipeg and is sufficiently far removed from the moderating influence of the Atlantic that its winters are long and sometimes quite cold. When I visited, the biosphere was full of families very happy for a few hours of relief from winter. I suspect Winnipeggers would react similarly. There are very few biospheres in the world; could we add another?

David Hoult is a federal research scientist. He was in Leipzig on a visit to the Max Planck Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 A15

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