Russian Scientists Are Trying to Revive Wooly Mammoths to Halt Siberia’s Warming Crisis
The prehistoric animals could diffuse the Arctic’s ticking carbon bomb
On a warm afternoon in the northeastern Siberian region of Yakutia, farther north than most humans care to live, Sergey Zimov stood below an eroding mudbank along the Kolyma River. He reached down by his feet and drove a metal rod into the spongy ground that sucked at his boots, hitting what lies a few feet beneath the surface: a layer of frozen soil that’s as hard as rock — and arguably as dangerous as dynamite.
Arctic permafrost holds up to 1,600 gigatons of carbon, roughly twice what’s in the atmosphere. Temperatures across the region are warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, and as this ground melts, it’s releasing masses of carbon that have been locked in frozen dirt for millennia. When it joins with the microbes in the air, the carbon oxidizes, entering the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane — the chief greenhouse gases that contribute to a warmer climate.
Current models suggest the permafrost could lose up to 20% of its stored carbon — and even that could take as long as 80 years. But disturbing signs are emerging that the rate of permafrost thawing is accelerating as the planet warms. A sudden collapse — or abrupt thaw, as scientists call this process — might create enough greenhouse gases to trigger a self-reinforcing climate feedback that would push the world past a dangerous tipping point and, eventually, into runaway warming.
Few know this silent menace better than Zimov. An ecologist by training, he has spent more than three decades studying warming in the Arctic, and was among the first to discover that its vast carbon stock posed a risk to the global climate more than two decades ago. To avert the threat, he has called for a radical solution: rewilding vast swaths of the Arctic with huge herds of bison, mammoths, horses, and other extinct species.
Zimov’s hypothesis is that, by simply trampling mosses and ripping out tree saplings, these large browsers would resurface the mammoth steppe, a grass-dominated ecosystem that quilted much of the northern reaches of Eurasia and North America until the end of the last ice age…