Ecosystem Blueprints Could Help Restore Destroyed Environments

Geologist Jess Peláez has taken on the challenge

Geologist Jess Peláez
Photograph by Charlie Langella

Restoring environments after human intrusion or natural disasters is complicated: There’s still much we don’t know about the interplay of microbes and mammals, aquifers and air pollution. But geologist Jess Peláez thinks the solution is as simple (and as complex) as cataloging our ecosystems, one at a time. In her own words:

"When humans extract resources like trees and coal, repairing the damage is often limited to ‘Let’s throw some dirt in a hole.’ That’s partly what inspired me to start the nonprofit Blueprint Earth. We want to lay the groundwork for a much higher standard. Even though we understand that everything in nature is interconnected, science has become so specialized that no one really knows how to put a complete environment back together. The goal is to combine the work being done in individual disciplines--from the granular to the macro level.

In our first project, we’re working with scientists, engineers, and students to catalog one square kilometer of the Mojave Desert. We’re creating a blueprint of the geology, biology, hydrology, and atmosphere to understand how they all interact. Once we’ve mapped the data, we’ll test our blueprint by re-creating that section of desert--the spring, the toads, the fungi--in a giant warehouse nearby. The know-how exists; scientists are already simulating geologic features, like landslides and lava flows, in labs. We’re never going to be quite as good as Earth itself, but let’s figure out how close is close enough.

The initial purpose is to make something functional. Take a place damaged by deforestation, like Haiti. We could blueprint an analogous area of the Dominican Republic, which is healthy, and try to replicate it in Haiti to help the environment heal in a way that isn’t possible now.

Further down the road, we hope our data will be useful for space exploration and help programs like NASA and SpaceX do optimized terra-engineering. Something this big-picture can seem terrifying, but when it’s framed as a collaboration over many lifetimes, it’s not.”

--As told to Katherine Kornei

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title "Jess Peláez: On blueprinting Earth's ecosystems."