Desert in a Box

One couple's quixotic climate change quest

A few hours ago, this small brown canyon mouse in the Mojave Desert was blissfully unaware of the humans camping nearby.

Now, one of the campers, Teresa Cabrera, is holding it by the scruff high in the air. There’s no way to know what the critter is feeling, but it looks scared. Has it seen a human before? Does it think it’s going to be eaten?

One thing’s for sure: It has no idea that it’s part of a giant plan to save this desert, and possibly the planet. If it knew, maybe it wouldn’t have chomped down so hard on Cabrera’s finger.

“Ow, he bit me!” she calls out.

Don’t worry, both the human and the mouse are fine.

Cabrera is in the Mojave, three hours east of Los Angeles, trapping mice with a half dozen scientists who volunteer for Blueprint Earth--a non-profit on a mission to preserve threatened ecosystems like the Mojave. They are trying to pull off something no one has ever succeeded at before. They are building models of sacred environmental habitats so they can be replicated at a future date.

It’s a plan that’s as crazy as it is smart, as logical as it is unlikely. But before we get to the details, meet the people behind it: Jess and Carlos Peláez.

The Dreamers

Jess Peláez

Jess Peláez

Jess and Carlos have grand aspirations.

This goes back to the night they first met seven years ago at a bar in Los Angeles. They were both designated drivers and Carlos spotted Jess in the crowd. Pretty soon he was chatting her up. He remembers telling her about his crazy plan to mine an energy source called Helium-3 from the moon.

“I told her that if you could get a space shuttle’s worth of Helium-3, you could power an entire city like LA for a year,” he said.

If you’ve never heard of Helium-3, you’re not alone. It’s a special kind of helium that some people think could power nuclear plants. It’s rare on Earth’s surface and probably even rarer as an effective pick up line.

Lucky for Carlos, Jess had heard of Helium-3. In fact, her thesis advisor was a premier Helium-3 scientist. She shot back that Helium-3 can be found on the bottom of the ocean and it’s probably a lot easier to get it there than going to the moon.

“I thought, ‘Hey, this sounds great,’” Carlos said. “Let’s go to the bottom of the ocean and mine for Helium-3.”

Carlos Peláez

Carlos Peláez

That chat at the bar led to phone calls and dates and eventually marriage. All the while, Jess and Carlos kept talking about big ideas like this, which brings us to what they’re doing today: Blueprint Earth.

The seed for this plan came a few years back when Jess said she felt like she was watching a slow moving disaster unfold in nature. She saw it on TV, in articles and when she visited forests, beaches and deserts. Places she loved were slowly dying from pollution and climate change.

Jess knew that once these ecosystems were gone, they’d be gone forever.

Someone could try and restore them, she said, but how would anyone know the exact balance of climate, plants and animals that keeps these places thriving?

Then she had an epiphany that became the driving force of Blueprint Earth: why wait until these places are gone to rebuild them?

The Plan

Jess and Carlos came up with a plan that is equal parts completely reasonable and utter science fiction.

Here’s the idea: They would go to threatened ecosystems and catalogue everything from the plants, animals, and rocks to the microbes, water sources and weather. Then, they’d create detailed records for it all.

That part is ambitious, but it’s basic science. Here’s where the sci-fi comes in: Jess and Carlos plan to eventually take those blueprints and use them to rebuild these places in giant warehouses for safekeeping--they’ve looked at a 50,000-square-foot warehouse.

It’s sort of like saving your computer’s memory on an external hard drive in case it crashes.

Except instead of ones and zeros, we’re talking about copies of the very stuff of nature.

“We’ll have a desert, we’ll have tundra, we’ll have grasslands, we’ll have rainforests and wetlands and swamps and eventually oceans,” Jess explained.

That way if any of these ecosystems collapse, Blueprint Earth will have living records to draw on for restoration efforts.

Jess and Carlos know how far out this sounds. To be clear, they’re educated and qualified to pull this off. Jess went to school for science and is a trained geologist. Carlos works in tech and consults for Fortune 500 companies. Still, Blueprint Earth seems like an impossibly grand idea. But Jess and Carlos are starting with small steps. They set up a non-profit, saved a few thousand dollars and signed up volunteers from local colleges.

They picked a place nearby, the Mojave Desert, to serve as the test case. Then they started making regular trips there to do the thing they dreamed up.

Which brings us back to that canyon mouse that bit Teresa Cabrera.

Field Work

All morning long, Cabrera and other student-volunteers were checking metal shoe-box sized traps set out the night before.

Cabrera plucked out the small, grey-brown critters and held them for others to examine. They took notes on each mouse’s gender, size and overall health, then let them go. Next, they were going to start a survey of the rocks on the ground.

The whole day felt like a field trip. Volunteers flipped over stones looking for bugs, taking notes on the weather and scooping up samples of pond water. What they’re doing is basic science: documenting the things around them. Nothing flashy. But how do you go from the notes on paper to a warehouse with the Mojave Desert in it?

There are so many details, like what do you do about weather? Or large animals, like Bighorn sheep? It would be cruel to lock them in a warehouse, but they’re clearly part of the Mojave ecosystem.

It’s early in the process and many of those questions can be answered later, but Jess said, “We need to find a way to source Bighorn sheep poop and urine so we can replicate the effects of that weathering into the environment.”

People have worked on problems like this before. In fact, this sort of world in a box idea has been tried before, but it didn’t exactly work out as hoped.

Maybe you remember Biosphere 2? It was a massive structure built in Arizona in the '90s and was supposed to house different sealed and self-sustaining ecosystems. The project cost about $200 million, and it was a huge flop. Oxygen levels crashed, unwanted insects invaded, plants and animals died.

Today it’s no longer sealed but it is used for environmental research by scientists at the University of Arizona. Joaquin Ruiz directs projects there and he salutes Jess and Carlos’ plan, but thinks they’ll be surprised at how hard it is to put a desert in a box.

"The minute you put it in a building it’s going to become different than reality," he said.

Still, he thinks they’ll no doubt learn a lot along the way.

All of that is still far off for the Blueprint Earth team. The warehouse Jess and Carlos are currently considering for their recreated desert would cost them around $8 million. Right now they have just about $3,000 in the bank.

One Brick in the Taj Majal

As the day ends in the Mojave, the temperature starts to drop quickly and the mountains bathe the volunteers in shadows. Everyone scrambles to get notebooks, bug nets and water bottles back in their bags.

After a full day’s work in the desert, Carlos estimates the team covered only about three percent of the square kilometer they hope to catalogue.

“And we haven’t covered 100 percent of what we need to cover within this three percent,” he quickly added.

After some conversation, he and Jess agree they’ve probably only hit about 85 percent of that three percent.

Keep in mind, this isn’t their first trip out here either. They’ve done this several times over the course of months. Suddenly, the odds of finishing even this one ecosystem seem impossibly long. After that, they still have the rest of the planet to cover.

It’s like they’ve busted their butts building one brick for the Taj Mahal. Now, they just have the rest of the Taj Mahal to build.

“Yeah it’s huge… we’re never going to get it perfect and we are never going to do all of it,” Jess said.

But she says that’s not the point. She thinks if her team can do enough to show people this dream is possible, more scientists and philanthropists will join the cause. She imagines one day there will be independent chapters of Blueprint Earth all around the globe, each cataloguing and recreating their local ecosystems.

Listening to her talk, you feel yourself believing. This is important to her. Jess and Carlos say they don’t plan on having kids. They see Blueprint Earth as their legacy, their imprint on the world.

“I would rather try it and have partial success," she said. "I don’t want to see this place turn into a museum exhibit and that’s it. But if it is, and that is the only memory we have of it – fine. I’ll take that. I’ll take that over nothing.”

Heat of the Moment is a long-term project about climate change, led by WBEZ Chicago. Sanden Totten is a science reporter at Southern California Public Radio.