Worried about the rapid destruction of permafrost from global warming? Here's how you can counter it by restoring the woolly mammoth habitat.
Mammoth Steppe ecosystem. Picture: National Geographic Society
Here at Pleistocene Park in the extreme north of Siberia, a fascinating and unique experiment is underway to bring back the prolific ecosystem in which the extinct mammoths once lived.
Why? Because by restoring lost animals to the Arctic (which may one day include the born-again mammoths), a new and rich vegetation develops which locks into the permafrost ground the harmful gases which are now increasingly escaping and posing an acute danger to our planet.
Please read the detailed article below and the crowdfunding plea by Russian scientist Nikita Zimov. It may change the way you think about climate change, and inspire you to donate to assist this experiment to help save our planet.
And, who knows, it may see you one day make the trip of a lifetime to Pleistocene Park to witness the positive changes that are possible. The Siberian Times is proud to back this campaign.
by Nikita Zimov, director of Pleistocene Park.
Here in Siberia we are reviving the vanished ice age Mammoth Steppe ecosystem. This is the payback to the wild nature which our ancestors destroyed 10,000 years ago. However, most importantly, today it is a tool to mitigate climate change. Grasslands with numerous grazing animals have a capacity to slow the climate warming and prevent permafrost from melting. If permafrost in the Arctic melts, it will trigger a catastrophic global warming feedback loop.
Here at Pleistocene Park in the extreme north of Siberia, a fascinating and unique experiment is underway. Pictures: Plestocene Park, Chris Linder
Pleistocene Park is a proof of concept, a public demonstration, a landscape scale art project and a philosophy of rational co-existence between humans and nature. For the past 20 years my family has spent a big portion of our time and all available finances to create Pleistocene Park. We have fenced 20 square kilometers of land, built infrastructure and installed monitoring equipment.
To bring animals to the Park we have mounted extreme expeditions ourselves. We traveled by small boat through the Arctic Ocean to Wrangel Island and from the Mongolian border with a 4x4 military transport truck, driving thousands of kilometers on frozen rivers through roadless wilderness. Currently we have over 70 large herbivores in the Park, including cold adapted Yakutian horses, moose, musk ox, reindeer, and European bison. These animals have shown that it is possible to transform ecosystems and reestablish high productivity grasslands by reintroducing large herbivores.
However, for the purposes of mitigating global warming, the size of the park is not nearly enough. This crowdfunding campaign is our first attempt to invite other people to participate in our project and an important step towards turning the modern arctic into a northern Serengeti. With this campaign, we plan to establish populations of bison, yaks and elk within the park, and support animals during the adaptation period. Future plans are to extend populations of these animals far beyond the borders of the Park.
Sergey Zimov (left) and Nikita Zimov (right). Picture: Pleistocene Park
No matter how much people alarm about global warming, problem gets only worse. At best, governments of the world take symbolic actions while global emissions of greenhouse gasses continue to increase. At my home in the Arctic, changes are coming so fast, it becomes obvious to everybody. We are rapidly approaching tipping points when warming becomes unstoppable. It is too late to wait for somebody else to deal with this. Even if restoring Mammoth Steppe does not solve all climate change problems it will prevent a worst-case scenario of runaway warming. And we work to make this happen. If you want to join our efforts, please support this kickstarter campaign.
History of the Pleistocene Park
My father Sergey Zimov founded Pleistocene Park as a scientific experiment, over 20 years ago. The original idea was to prove that animals can transform northern low productive vegetation to high productive grasslands. The first animals he brought were cold adapted Yakutian horses. As the years passed, I joined the Park development. We brought more animals and extended the territory. In parallel, my father developed the scientific background for Pleistocene Park. For us, it was important to know what kind of ecosystem was in the Arctic in the past, understand what the reason for this ecosystem to vanish was, understand how this ecosystem existed in the glacial climate, and how it affected the glacial climate. The results of our work were published in the most prestigious scientific journals, including Science and Nature.
Catastrophic thawing permafrost at Duvanny yar, in 120 kilometres from Pleistocene Park. Pictures: Luke Griswold-Tergis
Currently Pleistocene Park has grown beyond the scientific experiment framework; it is proof of the concept, a public demonstration, a landscape scale art project and a philosophy of rational co-existence between humans and nature.
What Pleistocene Park is trying to revive?
During the ice age steppe with millions of mammoths, bison, horses, reindeers, tigers, wolves and numerous other animals occupied vast landscapes, spanning from Spain to Canada and from Arctic islands to China. In the modern world, such high animal densities can be seen only in the few national reserves in Africa. As climate warmed 14,000 years ago, humans started their expansion into the Arctic and continued to North and South America. The further they expanded, the deadlier and more catastrophic were the consequences. Very quickly steppe ecosystems vanished globally with numerous animal species becoming extinct and the rest left in small numbers. The effect of this killing blitzkrieg on the planet can hardly be overestimated. In the Arctic: tundra and forests quickly replaced grasslands. That is the wild nature, as we know it – rare animals hiding in forests, and locations remote from humans, struggling to find enough forage. In the vision of modern people, high animal densities can be seen only in African national parks. No one knows that big herbivores can potentially live in herds of thousands even in the severe Arctic.
The idea of our work is simple - if the ecosystem was destroyed by reducing the number of animals, then we can implement a reverse shift. In this remote corner of the Russian Arctic we are collecting high densities of herbivores in one location, supporting them with enough forage and letting them promote grasslands.
Bison and musk ox at the Pleistocene Park. Pictures: Pleistocene Park
How can Pleistocene Park mitigate global warming?
Climate change is the biggest threat to our modern civilization. The promotion of steppe ecosystems can help us mitigate this threat. There are several ecological mechanisms, which allow steppes to cool the climate and reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
First, herds of herbivores will prevent permafrost from melting. To make permafrost colder, all that is needed is to remove heat insulating snow cover, and expose the ground to the extreme negative temperatures of the Arctic. In the steppe ecosystems, animal density is so high that animals looking for forage trample all the snow in the pastures several times per winter. This compacts the snow, massively reducing its heat insulating abilities.
Second, grasses through the process of photosynthesis absorb carbon dioxide (strong greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and preserve it in the form of roots. Cold Arctic soils assure that decomposition is low and roots do not decay for decades, centuries, or millennia. This creates a small but sustainable mechanism to partially absorb human emissions of greenhouse gases. The size of this is of course much smaller than our current human impact, but it is at least a step in the right direction.
Third, vast steppes allow direct cooling of the climate by increasing albedo. Grasslands are much lighter in color than shrublands and forests. Therefore, they reflect a greater portion of direct sunlight energy back into space without transforming it into heat (albedo effect). This effect is especially pronounced in the early spring, when the sun is already active in the Arctic – dark forests absorb heat, while steppes are covered with snow and remain white. This is also why the Arctic Ocean is warming as the Polar ice caps melt.
Due to poaching density of moose in the region have substantially decreased in the last 20 years. Picture: Pleistocene Park
Therefore, protecting permafrost from degradation is a primary goal, and there is one easy and environmentally friendly way to do it – create Pleistocene Park on top of it! Winter in the Arctic is extremely cold, but thick snowpack forming from the beginning of the winter protects permafrost from deep freezing. If one were to remove the cover, the temperature of permafrost would decline dramatically. Herbivores are ready to take this job. On the pastures animals excavate and trample snow several times per year looking for forage. This compacts the snow and it loses most of it heat insulating abilities. This allows deeper permafrost cooling and can stop or at least substantially postpone active permafrost degradation in the Arctic.
Why is Pleistocene Park asking for the crowdfunding help?
Up to this date, Pleistocene Park was an experiment created solely from the labour and funds of me, my father, and my family which we obtained from running the remote Arctic research station. As a scientific experiment Pleistocene Park did succeed, but if we want to create a tool that would help us mitigate global warming, we have to take the park to a totally different level. That is work we cannot accomplish ourselves.
Young bison plays with a tree branch at Pleistocene Park
This crowdfunding campaign is our first step towards inviting larger social groups to participate in our project and expand it. Wild Nature can’t be revived unless people want this to happen, and for us it is important to see that people around the world care, and are willing to help.
What we will do:
The specific scope of this campaign is to bring little herds of bison, yaks and elks to the Pleistocene Park in the spring and summer of 2017. We will buy several American plains bison from a little reserve near the Russian city of Perm, in the Urals. Yaks and elks will be bought in the Republic of Tuva, on the border with Mongolia in southern Siberia. Using heavy duty trucks we will drive animals to one of the farthest parts of Siberia reachable by road - the village of Seimchan, 500 km west of Magadan.
This distance is similar to driving from San Francisco to New York and then back to San Francisco. In Seimchan we will load animals on the first barge to navigate the Kolyma River after the winter ice goes out. After a few days on the river we will arrive in Pleistocene Park near the town of Chersky, close to the point where the Kolyma empties into the Arctic Ocean.
Reindeers are the most numerous animals in the park. Pictures: Pleistocene Park
What will the Kickstarter money will be spent for?
Our goal to raise is $106,000 (US). This is the minimum we need to:
Purchasing and preparation of containers for animal transport;
Rent 2 big trucks for transportation to Seimchan;
River ship transportation fee from Seimchan to Cherskii;
Small barge rental for 40 km transportation from the port in Cherskii to the Pleistocene Park pier;
Purchasing food for animals for the duration if the trip;
Miscellaneous trip expenses, including 2-3 people travelling with the animals,
Trip expenses for the movie maker and reporter travelling from US to document the trip and first period of animal adaptation in the park;
Expense of manufacturing and delivery of Kickstarter rewards;
Taxes, bank and legal fees
Horses living in the park are Yakutian semi-wild horses. Pictures: Pleistocene Park
We are optimistic that we will exceed our goal of $148,000 dollars. This is a large and long term project so there is much more work to be done. There is literally no upper limit. Extra funds for the Pleistocene Park development would be spent in the following order depending on the level of extra funding
Park is fenced with a game net. Picture: Pleistocene Park
Rewards for our supporters:
- 2$ You will be added to the list of people whom we will update with reports, photo and video on the progress of our trip bringing animals to the Pleistocene Park
- 10$ You will receive an electronic post card with a personal greetings from me on your emails
- 25$ You will receive a Fridge Magnet with the Pleistocene Park logo on it
- 50$ You will receive the Pleistocene Park T-Shirt
- 100$ You will receive Pleistocene Park Coffee Mug, T-Shirt and Magnet
- 200$ You will receive Patagonian water bottle with Pleistocene Park logo and Pleistocene Park T-Shirt
- 500$ Patagonian Jacket with Pleistocene Park logo with Coffee Mug, T-Shirt and Magnet
- 1000$ You will receive a keychain with a Pleistocene Park logo made out of real mammoth ivory, provided by our partner, the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk
- 2000$ You will receive the little statue of Pleistocene animal with Pleistocene Park logo made out of real mammoth ivory, provided by our partner, the Mammoth Museum
- 5000$ You will receive a pen with a Pleistocene Park logo made out of real mammoth ivory, provided by our partner Mammoth Museum
- 10000$ You will visit Pleistocene Park. Lifetime experience - 1 week spent at the North-East Scientific Station and Pleistocene Park in the company with Nikita Zimov, including trip to the Arctic coast, trip to Duvanii Yar - world biggest permafrost exposure and all the best “explore the Arctic”. Not included visa fee and airfare.
- 20000$ “Travel with the bison” – join us during the trip through Russia with the animals, and then spend a week at the Pleistocene park. Not included visa fee and airfare.
Both bison and musk ox are doing great job in transforming the vegetation. Pictures: Pleistocene Park
Answers to common questions:
Mammoth steppe need mammoth and you don’t have any
Indeed. But even in the mammoth steppe, mammoths were not the dominant species, but only one of them, and we believe and have evidences that high productive steppe ecosystem which keep permafrost frozen and absorb carbon can be sustainable even without mammoth. And additionally we don’t have mammoths YET. To our knowledge creation of mammoth or at least woolly elephants resistant to living in the Arctic is just a matter of time. We are not directly involved in the cloning process, but we follow the progress. Work of genetics is to clone the mammoth, our work is to ensure that once animal is alive it has a place to live in. Not a zoo, or a laboratory, but an actual homeland ecosystem.
If you are successful in this kickstarter campaign, does it mean I won’t have to worry about climate change anymore?
I am afraid that the reduction of anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases is still urgently required.
Yaks are one of the goals for this campaign. Picture: Pleistocene Park
So exactly what will the animals you are bringing to Siberia accomplish?
The higher the diversity of animals the higher total ecosystem biomass can reach and the faster the transformation from modern poor ecosystems to high productive steppes will occur. So basically it will accelerate creation of sustainable ecosystem. In addition within the grazing area animals will keep ground and permafrost colder and protected from thawing.
How big of a deal is melting permafrost?
Big. In the northern Siberian plains permafrost preserves as much carbon as in all above ground vegetation of the planet. Once it is melted it will release greenhouse gases. Exact rates are hard to predict, but estimates give emissions comparable with annual human greenhouse gas emissions. The question is in the rates of permafrost degradation. In case of slow process carbon will be released in small portions, but process will take centuries. In case of rapid permafrost degradation, same amount will be released in a few decades.
Animals preventing permafrost from degradation is a cool theory but does it really work?
We have preliminary data to support this theory. We placed temperature sensors at 0.5 meters depth in the most heavily grazed portion of Pleistocene Park and more sensors in an otherwise similar location but outside the fence, where the snow is undisturbed (control). In March, the control registered -7C while the treatment, inside the park, registered -24C . To gather more data we need to place more sensors over a larger area inhabited by more animals of a more diverse range of species.
Are there possible negative impacts?
From the point of view of fighting climate change there are two mechanisms which reduce positive effect of steppe ecosystems on climate cooling.
Those is the removal of moss, which keeps the ground cold in the summer and thus in the modern ecosystems helps to preserve the permafrost. However, we believe removal of snow has a stronger effect on the overall permafrost stability and moss lead only to degradation of very top horizon of permafrost.
The second effect is that animals, ruminants in particular, are the source of the very strong greenhouse gas – methane. But high productive steppes allow much stronger evapotranspiration and no wetlands can exist in such environment. So production of methane by animals will be overbalanced by limited production from wetlands, which is currently the biggest natural source of methane to the atmosphere.
Some animals are to be nursed. Pictures: Pleistocene Park
Within the scientific community there is a very high certainty that climate change will have a tremendously negative impact on the Arctic, its ecosystems, and human sustainable living, both in the Arctic and the rest of the world. So not taking any actions will definitely lead to negative impacts.
Is Pleistocene Park just about climate change?
No, it’s about much more than that. It’s about changing scientific paradigms and changing societal paradigms. Combating climate change is the most urgent and concrete manifestation of this but the issues we are addressing go much much deeper -- we are presenting an alternate vision of future relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world. For more information you can read my father's Wild Field Manifesto, in the original Russian here and in English translation here.
Risks and challenges
Overall creation of the new ecosystem (or even the one which vanished 15,000 years) is the task with many unknowns. Therefore any step in this direction is connected with a certain level of risk. But 20 years of experience in this field has grown our confidence that Pleistocene Park can be created and that this is a right thing to do. Since climate change can’t wait, we can’t wait with the solution too. Below is the list of technical difficulties and risks which our expedition on bringing new animals may face, estimation of probability and ways to solve or mitigate:
1) Political tensions between USA and Russia. In case of increasing political tension there is always a chance that any money transactions between countries will be banned. However, so far nothing like that happened, and with we look into future relationship between our countries with optimism.
2) Veterinary permissions for animal transportation. Sometimes, some regions are not allowing any animal export in case of spread of some animal illnesses within the region. However, regions from which we plan to purchase animals are currently clean, and being located within severe climate chances for them to get veterinary blockade in the end of winter is minimal. In addition, we created the list of animals and places we plan to purchase, but within the same budget we can adjust the location of purchase of even change the specie to similar, in case of force major.
'Harder then the rest of the earth around it, the Kondyor Massif intrusion has slowly made its way through 5,000 miles of mantle and is now visible on the surface of the Earth.' Picture: Russian Platinum
3) Assuring animal comfort during the trip. That is possible that animals will adapt badly to the transportation. However, our experience on animal transport (including 25 days travels) had zero death events. For every animal will be prepared single room, with enough space, access, to water and fresh air. Timing and route of the travel will guarantee no extreme temperatures. And moreover timing of the travel will be planned the way, trucks will not drive more than 10 hours a day, leaving enough time for animals to rest during the trip. The last section of the trip will be on the river ship with zero movements from the waves or storm. In addition, we will have a veterinarian specializing in large animals advise us on how to take care of animals on the trip.
4) Poor adaptation of animals to new environment. That is a serious concern. First autumn and winter can become challenge for animals. Especially younger species. Therefore, firstly we are aiming to buy animals in the regions with climate being as severe as possible, to reduce the climate difference. Secondly we are planning to build a shelter for easier adaptation to the severe environment of the Pleistocene Park. Potentially shelter construction will have several sections to allow separation of different animal species. Thirdly enough forage is the key for animal survival. Therefore same autumn will be transported to the park 30 tons of concentrated forage, to secure good body ratio among new animals. And lastly in addition to rangers in the park will live a person with veterinary education and sufficient pharmacy products to allow treatment of ill animals.
5) Confrontation between different animal species within the fenced area. Some species may act aggressively towards others, and within limited fence area this could cause troubles. Both in the Pleistocene Park and Wild Field (our second Park, 250km south of Moscow) we had experience of co-existence of different species. In most cases they dealed fine. However for just in case, Pleistocene Park has fenced area separated to 4 sections, each one of them big enough for several tens of big animals to live.
Nikita Zimov is the director of the Pleistocene Park, research fellow at the Northeast Science Station.
Please join the Kickstarter campaign here.
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