In Our Backyard No. 6: Life in the desert demands resilience, especially when lightning strikes

Hosted by

America's most powerful wind farm -- 1.5 gigawatts in size, enough to generate electricity for a city of millions -- is on the edge of the Mojave at the foot of the Tehachapi Pass, site of one of the earliest and still largest collections of windmills in the world. Altogether, there are more than 5,000 turbines in the area, and the newest and largest are nearly 500 feet to the tip of the blade. Photo by Steve Boland/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The California desert is a precious asset, famous for soaring mountains and majestic valleys. But it’s hardly a wasteland. “There’s been human activity for thousands of years,” says Mike Gauthier, Superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. 

More importantly, the desert is home to species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. It’s a jungle compared to other deserts.

Burnt Joshua Trees after the Cima Dome fire. Photo by Mike Gauthier.

But climate change is threatening unique species, including the Joshua Tree, which botanist Drew Kaiser calls a “keystone species” that many animals rely on, including birds with no other nesting sites. More than a million Joshua trees died in the recent Cima Dome Fire, and increasing temperature and drought threaten them with extinction. 

The desert tortoise is another unique creature, not just beloved by tourists, but important to the environment. “Their burrows provide important habitat for lots of other rare species, and because they are herbivores moving about the landscape, they can help be dispensers of seeds,” says Tracey Tuberville, a researcher with the Savanna River Ecology Lab.

Climate change has disrupted the life cycle of the tortoise to the point where caretakers like Tuberville keep babies indoors until they’re strong enough to endure the heat and smart enough to avoid predators, including ravens.

Image Not Available
A big male tortoise near a roadway in the Mojave National Preserve. Photo by Susanna Mann.

Now the deserts are serving human needs in a new and different way.  There are nine solar farms in the Mojave alone, including Ivanpah, the world’s largest. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, signed by Barack Obama in 2016, guarantees there will be many more.

Mojave Superintendent Mike Gauthier sees it both ways: “If we develop a solar farm or solar array or wind farm, that could impact the habitat of the desert tortoise or Joshua trees.” On the other hand, he adds, “It's a brave new world, and you can't make decisions in a vacuum. There's always consequences for every action in nature.”

This is the sixth episode of "In Our Backyard," a six-part series.

Read the full episode transcript here. 




Warren Olney


Julie Carli