If you learned that, today, you had the opportunity to back a mammoth effort to restore one of the world's biggest ecosystems, would you take it?
A new Kickstarter campaign has been launched by Russian ecosystem scientists, and father and son, Sergey and Nikita Zimov.
Their plan? Help resurrect the lost ecosystem of the mammoth steppe, once the largest land biome on the planet.
How? By reintroducing the great herds of animals that co-evolved with and used to inhabit the landscape, but that were hunted to near-extinction by ancient humans.
Save the Woolly Mammoth's ecosystem – save the world?
Ok, restoring the mammoth steppe isn't going to directly prevent, say, an asteroid impact, a full nuclear exchange, or other existential dilemmas. But it could be really helpful in our journey to curb global warming and re-balance the Earth’s carbon cycle.
Why? Because the Arctic permafrost is melting. A lot. Not only that, but the melting is getting faster. This is starting to release tonnes and tonnes of the powerful climate-warming gas methane, until now trapped in the frozen soils. Across millions of square miles of Russian tundra, there is a truly gargantuan amount of methane waiting to be released.
The not entirely depressing news, however, is that there may be some fairly unheard of ‘grassroots’ solutions.
The Zimovs' research indicates that ‘rewilding’ the frozen landscape could be really important. Specifically: seeing millions more animals interacting with the land in ways more akin to how they used to, many millennia ago.
Bringing that ecosystem back could actually help the permafrost to stay, well, permanently frosty.
First, in winter, herds of grazing animals can move over the landscape. Think bison, reindeer, horses, yaks, formerly (and maybe one day again) mammoths, and so on. All those hooves help to compact the snow. (Uncompact snow is actually an insulator against the extreme cold).
By compacting the snow and exposing the soil in the very, very cold arctic winter, this lets that cold into the ground. This could lessen the impact of the summer warming. (Yes, you're right, it does technically actually let the 'heat' energy in the ground out). Either way: colder temperatures, deeper in the ground, in the winter, could lessen the melting from warming in the summer.
To test this, Pleistocene Park placed temperature sensors half a meter deep in the most heavily grazed parts of their park. They also put sensors in comparable conditions – minus the grazing – beyond their fences. In March, the control sensor outside of the park measured -7C. However, the sensor inside of the park measured -24C . More data are needed with more sensors over more land with more diverse species. But that’s an encouraging start.
Second, the grazing of the animals themselves can kick-start the natural carbon pump.
Grazing herds trample and eat the mosses that cover the present-day tundra. This can clear the way for productive grasses return and thrive. Grasses themselves suck up much more carbon from the atmosphere as they photosynthesise in the summer. Then, when animals eat these plants, they process the carbon locked up in them and, um, 'prepare it' (by digesting it) for going into the soil. This means more nutrients, more growth, more animals and more carbon could get removed from the atmosphere.
No one solution will solve the whole problem of climate change. But this one might help massively.
The true impact of restoring the mammoth steppe will only be known in the future. But right now, there's an opportunity to shape that outcome. As with other promising approaches to removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – the more piloting, data and dialogue now – the more informed, understood, and ready to sustainably scale things can be.
You’ll be able to read more about how the Zimovs' decades of work could be a climate game-changer in DRAWDOWN. The book, out on April 18, describes one of the most comprehensive plans to date for halting and reversing global warming, edited by Paul Hawken. Pleistocene Park is one of the emerging solutions and one people can get involved in right now.
A new 'restoration epoch' won't be easy to achieve, but it may still be possible…