Located south of Chersky in the Sakha Republic in northeastern Siberia is an expansive pocket of more than 500 billion tons of methane – more greenhouse gas than man has made since the Industrial Revolution. Permafrost has trapped the gases in the soil for the last 10,000 years, but over the last few decades, global warming has caused the permafrost to melt, allowing gas from the carbon rich soil to seep into the atmosphere. Scientists believe if the permafrost continues to melt, in just even 100 years, a cloud of noxious gas could overtake the Earth, causing catastrophic results for both the climate and global agriculture. However, Russian geo-physicist Sergei Zimov has come up with an effective way to mitigate disaster, and he’s doing it by recreating the last ice age across 160 sq km of Siberian “desert”, a project he calls the Pleistocene Park.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, between about 10,000 and 2,000,000 years ago, nearly half the world’s land mass was covered with tundra-steppe, a cold, dry grassland spanning the distance between forest and desert ecosystems. As the Pleistocene reached its end, many of the animals in the area died off and less productive forest ecosystems replaced them. Scientists have long maintained that climate change caused the die-off, but Zimov believes otherwise. Rather, Zimov reckons climate had little to do with it and that all these animals would be thriving there now if it hadn’t been for man overhunting them to extinction.
In an experiment to bring the land back to its prehistoric states to prove his theory, Zimov bought a 160 sqm parcel in northeast Siberia and began the creation of what he called the Pleistocene Park. For the last 20 years Zimov has focused on recreating the ancient taiga/tundra grasslands that were once widespread in the region during the last ice age. Zimov has introduced and re-introduced herd animals that once grazed the land, and has even taken to using 4 ton trucks to knock down heat absorbing trees like the wooly mammoth once did. The key concept behind his experiment has been that animals, more than temperature, maintained that former ecosystem. Zimov proposed that the introduction of a variety of large herbivores will recreate their ancient ecological niches in Siberia and regenerate the Pleistocene terrain with its different ecological habitats.
While Zimov did not set out to save the world from climate change, his efforts have given way to an unexpected benefit –restored grassland across northern Siberia has the potential to prevent the permafrost from further thawing and releasing stored greenhouse gases. To help test this hypothesis at Pleistocene Park, Zimov constructed a 105-foot tower with instrumentation that takes constant methane, carbon dioxide, and water vapor readings. In addition to Zimov’s own database, readings are fed into a global CO2 monitoring system maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Preventing this [global warming] scenario from happening could be facilitated by restoring Pleistocene-like conditions in which grasses and their root systems stabilize the soil. The albedo—or ability to reflect incoming sunlight skyward—of such ecosystems is high, so warming from solar radiation also is reduced,” Zimov wrote in a 2005 essay. “And with lots of herbivores present, much of the wintertime snow would be trampled, exposing the ground to colder temperatures that prevent ice from melting. All of this suggests that reconstructed grassland ecosystems, such as the ones we are working on in Pleistocene Park, could prevent permafrost from thawing and thereby mitigate some negative consequences of climate warming.”
“The ecosystem that used to be here many years ago cooled the climate substantially. And the present-day situation – I mean climate warming and the melting of permafrost – is a separate problem which we are seriously engaged in. We came to realize that the revival of a rich ecosystem on a vast territory will considerably affect the climate and help us control the process of global warming. Scientists find hundreds of kilograms of mammoth-epoch bones on every hectare of northern Yakutia, which testifies to the bygone abundance of herbivores and a different landscape. Our objective is to find out why the situation varied so much after all.”
As far-fetched as the project sounds, it appears to be working. The trees that were knocked down were replaced by grass, and the herds Zimov shipped in have been eating off the land, fertilizing it, and reproducing amongst themselves. Moreover, as they travel across the land, they are trampling the cold snow into the ground. So far scientists have measured a consderable decrease in temperature in the park reserve, and the permafrost remains stable.
While many initially dismissed Zimov’s project as crazy, the astounding results of his work has garnered him attention from numerous scientists in the US. One such person is biologist Adam Wolf of Princeton University. Wolf agrees that if the trapped gasses were to be released, the warming would be so extreme, the effects would be unfathomable. Further reflecting on the work being done by Zimov, Wolf wholeheartedly believes that the Pleistocene Park could absolutely be scaled up to avoid catastrophe. All that is needed is proper investment.
The project isn’t entirely restricted to megafauna though. Zimov also hopes that one day cloning technology will become advanced enough to recreate a woolly mammoth. The animal became extinct at the end of the last ice age, and was key to maintaing the local ecosystem. Zimov has already brought in Japanese scientists in search of preserved skin and meat, which, one day, might provide enough quality DNA to recreate a mammoth.