Beneath Saudi Arabia’s blazing sun, the largest greenhouse ever planned is taking shape. It will take visitors on a walk through Earth’s history—and into its future

By SciIll Staff

December 5, PopSci

It’s hard to imagine it raining in Riyadh. Less than five inches of water fall from the clouds above Saudi Arabia’s capital city each year. When the thermostat rises above 110°F, it’s not a heat wave—it’s midday. But it wasn’t always like this. A little over three million years ago, before climate-change cycles turned the area into a desert, the Arabian Peninsula’s empty riverbeds were overflowing valleys, and its dry expanses of shrubland were lush grasslands.

Until now, Riyadh’s verdant past was confined to the pages of textbooks. Today, that history is coming alive. In 2006, the city sponsored an international competition to design a botanical garden as a gift to Saudi Arabia’s recently-anointed leader, King Abdullah. The winning design, a joint venture from British architecture and engineering firms Barton Willmore and Buro Happold, will explore the region’s plant life through the ages, taking visitors on a walk millions of years back in time.

Set to open in 2011, the ambitious King Abdullah International Botanical Gardens will attempt to display the diverse array of the region’s plant species throughout the past 400 million years in its “paleobotanic” greenhouse. And, as if helping visitors peer into the past isn’t enough of a challenge, the garden will also explore the land’s potential future. The designers hope to educate visitors about the process and consequences of natural-resource depletion and human-wrought climate change as well as the benefits of
preserving Earth’s bounty.

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image: A Stroll through Botanic History: The crescent-shaped greenhouse at King Abdullah International Botanical Gardens, rendered here, will be the size of 15 football fields, making it four times as big as the world’s current largest greenhouse (by PopSci).