How Polar Bears Will Keep the Elephants Warm at the Oregon Zoo

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Zoos are weird places. You have fake safari next to fake tundra next to fake rainforest—all separated by a glass and concrete and a few feet of space. At the Oregon Zoo, a new energy plan manages to both subvert and perfectly embody the zoo's artificial ecology: The excess heat from the polar beat habitat will keep Asian elephants warm.

The new heating system, which the zoo is calling a "slinky" because of its shape, is an underground geothermal loop. Excess heat from the zoo's polar bear exhibit will be absorbed by the fluid inside a coil of pipes ending underneath the 32,000-square-foot Forest Hall, where Asian elephants are housed in an indoor "forest." This, along with a few other energy tweaks, are supposed to cut Forest Hall's greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent.


On one hand, this seems like an ingenious technical solution—a win-win for the comforts of the polar bear and the elephant, not to mention the zoo's energy bill. On the other, it reveals just how deeply artificial a zoo is, where the weather of the "Arctic" is directly tied to that of the "forest." A manmade energy cycle connects two manmade climates, linking two animals who ordinarily don't even belong at the same latitude. [Oregon Zoo]

Lead image: Oregon Zoo