Putting A Freeze On Climate Change: Ecologist's 'Ice Age' Animal Reserve Could Halt Siberian Permafrost Thaw
A father and son's Ice Age plot to slow Siberian thaw in one of the planet's coldest places
In the far northeastern corner of Yakutia, about 1,600 kilometers from Yakutsk, ecologist Sergei Zimov and his son Nikita have created what they call Pleistocene Park, a 145-square-kilometer plot of land that they have turned into a live experiment in reversing the effects of climate change. To halt the thawing of permafrost, they are repopulating the area with the wild animals
Zimovs began introducing animals into the fenced park in 1996 and have so far relocated around 200 of different species, which they say are making the permafrost colder compared with other areas. The animals, they says, trample the snow, making it much more compact so the frigid winter temperatures can freeze the soil and the snow does not act as a thick insulating blanket.
Permafrost covers 65% of Russia's landmass and about a quarter of the northern landmass. Scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions from its thaw could eventually match or even exceed the European Union's industrial emissions due to the sheer volume of decaying organic matter.
Duvanny Yar gives a side-on view of the permafrost thaw taking place underground where ancient Pleistocene-era flora and fauna have been trapped frozen for millennia.
As everything from mammoth bones to ancient vegetation frozen inside thaws and decomposes, it now threatens to release vast amounts of greenhouse gases.
Scientists estimate that permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere contains about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon, about twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere, or about three times as much as in all of the trees and plants on earth.
These mottled hills and pitted reliefs are typical in places where the permafrost has degraded, producing what is known as "thermokarst" terrain. Like cities and towns across northern and northeastern Russia, Churapcha is suffering the consequence of climate change thawing the permafrost on which everything is built.
Across Russia, there are more than 15 million people living on permafrost. Whole cities sit on permafrost and its thawing could cost Russia 7 trillion roubles ($100 billion) in damage by 2050 if the rate of warming continues, scientists say.
Built on the assumption that the permafrost would never thaw, many homes, pipelines and roads in Russia's far north and east are now sinking and increasingly in need of repair.
"It is very hard to agree to reduce industrial CO2 emissions. Reducing permafrost emissions [is] much easier," Sergei Zimov wrote in a 1988 manifesto laying out his bold ambition. "All [that's] needed is to cross mental barriers, accept that pasture ecosystems have a right for living and freedom, and return part of the territory which our ancestors took from them."
Pleistocene Park now has around 200 grazers, which Nikita Zimov says is already keeping the soil cooler than in the surrounding area. To really slow climate change, however, the Zimovs will need hundreds of thousands of animals across millions of acres in the Arctic.
Reporting by RFE/RL's Matthew Luxmoore; Reuters' Maxim Shemetov, Tom Balmforth, Clare Baldwin; Editing by Margot Buff