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Keeping Siberia’s permafrost frozen

Using bison (or even woolly mammoths) to keep Siberia’s permafrost frozen

Russian scientists are trying to restore the ice age ecosystem by re-introducing tundra and large animals such as yaks, bison or even woolly mammoths, to prevent the Siberian permafrost from thawing.

Angelina Davydova, Kommersant (Russia)


Melting permafrost is both a consequence and a trigger of climate change. As global temperatures increase, the thawing of the Siberia’s frozen landmass releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas stored underneath. This further stimulates climate change and provokes more thawing. Now, a team of Russian scientists are trying to stop this dangerous loop phenomenon with an original idea. They plan to restore the ice age ecosystem by re-introducing tundra and large animals such as yaks, bison or even woolly mammoths.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in early October, states that the rise of global temperatures by 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will result in the thawing of 4.8 million square kilometres of permafrost – a figure that could rise to 6.6 million square kilometres if warming reaches 2°C. Today, the permafrost’s surface area is around 23 million square kilometres, spanning Siberia, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and a few other high mountain regions. That equals one quarter of the entire Northern Hemisphere.

Most of the permafrost areas of the world are in Russia, covering 50 to 65 percent of the nation’s territory, depending on the season. According to a recent report of the Russian Ministry for Natural Resources and Environment, global warming is taking place faster in Russia than most other places on the planet. From 1976-2017, average annual temperatures in Russia rose 0.45°C every 10 years, as compared to 0.18°C on the planet as a whole.

These changes resulted in warming of the Russian permafrost and its retreat – up to 100 km northward, says a group of scientists from the George Washington University, the Hydrological Institute of Saint Petersburg, and the Earth Cryosphere Institute of Moscow. They say that an increase of global temperatures by only one degree Celsius will correspond to a decrease in permafrost as large as Mongolia or even Greenland.

Researchers say the direct cost of permafrost degradation is several billion dollars per year –since pipeline maintenance alone requires more than USD 1.5 billion annually. Melting permafrost has already affected houses and infrastructure in the Russian Arctic.

“We have to acknowledge that we will lose a certain percentage of permafrost. In most places, the frozen landmass will become shallower and the timeline of thawing, including temporary thawing in the summer, will become longer,” says Alexey Kokorin, head of the Climate and Energy Program at WWF Russia. He says one key to solving the problem is adapting to new conditions, including strengthening or replacing existing infrastructure.

The 35-year-old Russian scientist Nikita Zimov has another idea. He has lived with his family on a northeastern scientific research station in the Republic of Yakutia, above the polar circle, since the age of two. After graduating from Novosibirsk University, he returned to work at the station. Together with his father, Sergey Zimov, he came up with the concept of re-creating an Arctic ecosystem as it was before humans appeared – as tundra steppes with highly productive grasslands.

He explains, “We are trying to reintroduce large animals, whose presence will also support the growth of grass, which will take away CO2 from the atmosphere and return it to the soil. The animals will also trample down the snow, making it denser and allowing deeper freezing during winter, preventing permafrost thawing.” Because grasslands would be lighter in colour than the current ecosystem of low shrubs and wetland, the proposed solution could also reduce the albedo effect (whereby dark coloured surfaces of the planet absorb more sunlight and lighter surfaces reflect them back into the atmosphere).

In 1996, Sergey Zimov started a project in Pleistocene Park, a 144 sq. kilometre park near the research station and 150 km from the Arctic Ocean. Today, it is home to more than 100 animals living on a protected territory of around 20 sq. kilometres, including yaks, sheep, reindeer, Yakutian horses, Kalmyk cows, European bison (wisents) and musk ox.

The younger Zimov says that they wanted to import American bison from Alaska (they inhabited Siberia long ago), but the park couldn’t come up with affordable transportation options. They are now trying to locate American bison elsewhere in Russia.

In 2013, Sergey Zimov met with George Church, a scientist at Harvard University. Church’s team has been trying to bring back woolly mammoths by implanting Asian elephants with DNA found in the Arctic ice. If that project is successful, the Zimovs hope that the first woolly mammoths will come to live in Pleistocene Park.

So far, the creators of the park have relied on their own money and crowdfunding campaigns to finance the project. “I have observed the effects of global warming on the park, especially in the last three years,” says Nikita Zimov. “With our initiative we are trying to show how we can potentially stop or slow down this process, and also demonstrate this solution to the world. We hope that once it proves successful it can be reproduced in other northern regions of the planet.”

Angelina Davydova
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