Cataloguing the Mojave as hedge against climate change

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Even if world leaders agree to curb greenhouse gas emissions in Paris this week, pollution already in the atmosphere will likely warm the planet for decades to come.

That is expected to stress many sensitive ecosystems, pushing some toward collapse.

But what if you could analyze and inspect every element of an environment, write it down and rebuild it somewhere else for safe keeping? It would be like having a blueprint to help you rebuild a swath of nature in case of emergency.

That's what Blueprint Earth, a Southern California based non-profit, is hoping to do.

The group, started in 2013, is cataloguing all the rocks, animals, insects, streams, plants, bacteria and weather of one square kilometer in the Mojave Desert.

Later, the group will use the data gathered to try and build a simulated Mojave in a warehouse.

"It’s kind of like having a backup file to your USB or your laptop," explained Blueprint Earth volunteer and Cal State Fullerton biology student Teresa Cabrera.

That backup might come in handy, since scientists think in future, California will be hotter with longer, more frequent droughts. Areas like the Mojave, which already have very little water, could become dangerously dry.

On a recent weekend, Cabrera and half a dozen volunteers camped in the desert just outside of Baker -- home of that famous thermometer off the 15. They surveyed a remote canyon full of boulders and yucca.

One group trapped and examined rodents like canyon mice and woodrats to help understand the animals' role in the region.

Meantime, Sheila McClure, who studies ecology at CSUF, surveyed small ponds of water that upwelled from an underground spring.

"There's probably life in here, there's probably a lot of mites in here," she said while swishing away bright green algae.

This whole project was the brain-child of husband and wife duo Jess and Carlos Peláez. Jess Peláez, a geologist by training, said the genesis came from traveling to many endangered ecosystems and wanting to help.

"When they are gone, they are just completely gone forever," she said. "It was that sort of, why can’t we fix these things now?"

Peláez is an unabashed optimist, which is almost required for a project this ambitious, complicated and expensive. Right now, Blueprint Earth runs on volunteers and a few thousand donated dollars.

It'll cost millions to build a climate controlled desert in a warehouse, with the ability to replicate day, night, winter, summer, rain, even snow.

One potential location for this "Mojave in a box" is a warehouse for sale near downtown L.A.

Right now, the nearly 50-thousand-square-foot building is full of concrete, beams and boxes of fabric.

Jess Peláez imagines it one day filled with cacti, rocks, streams, canyon mice and a visitor’s center, where people can learn about the Mojave.

Just don't expect to see any large animals like coyotes or big horn sheep, she said. That would be inhumane.

"We need to find a way to source big horn sheep poop and urine so we can replicate the effects of that weathering into the environment," she added. Most likely she'd reach out to sheep sanctuaries for that stuff.

Part of Blueprint Earth's approach is to bring together as many different scientific disciplines as possible.

They hope to work with experts in biology, ecology, botany and geology to piece together the most holistic picture of how plants, animals, bacteria and rocks in the Mojave interact.

A project like this has been tried before.

In the '90s a huge glass dome was built to house five distinct ecosystems that would be cut off from the world and be self-sustaining.

It was called Biosphere 2, and it famously did not work out as planned. The atmosphere became unbalanced, plants and animals died and unwanted insects invaded.

"The minute you put it in a building it’s going to become different than reality," said Joaquin Ruiz with the University of Arizona.

He directs current projects at Biosphere 2, which is no longer sealed but still used as a research facility. Ruiz applauds the idea behind Blueprint Earth, but said the team has a tough challenge ahead of them.

"They are probably going to be surprised that it’s not going to work as predicted, but that’s fun," he said. "They are going to be learning all kinds of things from how it’s really going to work."

So far, all Blueprint Earth's work is focused on one desert ecosystem, a relatively easy environment to study. Peláez says her real dream is to one day catalogue and reconstruct multiple locations across the globe.

"Yeah, it’s huge," she admitted. "We’re never going to get it perfect, and we’re never going to do all of it."

Still, she said by tackling the challenges one step at a time, she thinks her scrappy team can accomplish a lot. And if the project never reaches its full potential, she's OK with that too.

"As long as we’ve made an effort, a really good effort at preserving the knowledge that is out there and learning from it, I’ll be really happy."

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