Monday, November 11, 2013

A Pleistocene Park – pt.2

In the second and final instalment of this VEC guest blog series, journalist/filmmaker Luke Griswold-Tergis discusses the potential magnitude, remaining questions and the hope of Sergey and Nikita Zimov’s work in the Pleistocene Park

Read part 1 here.

The Zimovs calculated just how much carbon is stored in these Siberian Yedoma soils: it is around 500 gigatons, almost equal to the amount of humans have put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  And more recent calculations by an international group of scientists, including Sergey, which looked at all permafrost soils, not just Yedoma have put the number at 1672GtC. That’s more carbon than the latest estimated carbon in all the above ground vegetation on earth and the atmosphere combined!

Nobody is quite sure when it will melt, how fast it will melt, how much of it will melt, and what will happen to all that carbon.  Researchers from around the world are trying to answer these questions through research projects at the Zimovs’ field station. But the Zimovs have made some rough calculations. Nikita told me he expects that within twenty years his region of northern Siberia risks, on an annual basis, emitting as much carbon as all the cars and trucks and factories and power plants of Europe.  Much of it will be emitted in the form of methane which in the short term is 23 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Kolima River and thermokarst lakesThe Kolima river and thermokarst lakes near Cherski, Siberia.

During the Pleistocene, the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem drove global climate in two directions, both positive feedback loops magnifying swings in temperature, and both powerful ones according to the Zimovs.  During cool periods, it sucked carbon out of the atmosphere and froze it underground, maintaining cool conditions. During warming events, like the transition from Pleistocene to Holocene 10,000 years ago, melting permafrost rapidly dumped large amounts of carbon and methane back into the atmosphere, accelerating and amplifying the warming.  The physical effects on the landscape are visible today. A once flat plain collapsed as ice wedges within the soil melted, creating gullies and ravines and leaving thermokarst lakes dotting the landscape.

 “drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil”

Nikita suggests three ways that the restoration of the Mammoth Steppe will mitigate anthropogenic climate change:

First, it will once again start drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. Although the amounts of carbon are significant, don’t expect any quick and easy fixes on this front.  Nikita created a model of carbon sequestration, past and future, in northern soils.  Even in a best-case scenario, if we stopped burning fossil fuels now, it would take thousands of years to remove the carbon we have already pumped into the atmosphere.

Second, grasslands have a very high albedo. They reflect much more solar radiation back into space then the tundra, blueberry bushes, and larch trees that currently dominate much of the north.  More research is needed about just how large this effect may be but Nikita and others suspect it could be significant.

Third, and far and away the largest effect in the short term: restoring the Mammoth Steppe will keep permafrost frozen thus keeping all that carbon, gathered over hundreds of thousands of years, locked in the ground.  How will it do this?  In the winter, when air temperatures can reach -50c, a thick layer of snow insulates the earth. Vast herds of animals would spend the winter with one thing on their mind: food. They would trample the snow as they walked and they would paw through it looking for forage, thus reducing its capacity to insulate. How big of an effect does this have? Last year, at Sergey’s suggestion, a group of American scientists installed a temperature sensor in the middle of the most heavily grazed meadow in the park and another, in a similar area, but outside the fence, undisturbed by animals. Outside the fence the March soil temperature at a depth of .5 meters was -10c.  In the trampled area it was -24c. These are preliminary results and more measurements need to be made, but even Nitkita was surprised by the strong effect winter grazing had. This summer they drilled a borehole in the park to measure year-round temperature trends at greater depths. We should know more as data from this sensor becomes available.

Eddy covariance tower

The eddy covariance tower in Pleistocene Park.  Instruments on the tower measure the amount of carbon absorbed and released by the land below.  

There have been some failures too. In 1988, Sergey took delivery of the first animals for his park, a herd of horses. He calculated that there would be no need for fences. Why would the horses go anywhere? They weren’t privy to Sergey’s logic and promptly made the 500km trek back to their home pasture in the dead of winter. 3 years ago Nikita drove a truck full of elk across thousands of kilometers of roadless wilderness, following frozen rivers and tracks in the snow. The Zimovs failed to accurately calculate how high an elk can jump.  The last one was seen about a year ago several kilometers outside the park and heading south. During my visit to the park I got conscripted into a couple days labor improving their fencing. Most of the Zimov’s science is groundbreaking and as such controversial. They have managed to ruffle a lot of feathers over the years and definitely have their detractors. That said, the volume of papers they publish in top tier scientific journals would make most scientists envious. On the subject of climate change, whether they are right about every detail or not, the stakes are too high to ignore them.

Sergey seems rather miffed that the world hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced his idea and run with it already. Nikita is bit more pragmatic. Like his father, he is confident in the plan but he acknowledges there are some kinks to be worked out. Things like the height of fences, or the difficult logistics of shipping a herd of bison from Canada to Siberia. More importantly things like finding the right mix of animals to sustain a grassland ecosystem in the far north. Nikita’s background is in advanced mathematics and he acknowledges that something as complex as an ecological system won’t be figured out by calculation alone. There is still a lot of trial and error ahead. He also sees need to engage with a legitimately skeptical world. After all, they are talking about radically reshaping the ecology of the largest landmass on earth. What could possibly go wrong?

 “nothing is going to save us if we don’t take steps to save ourselves and stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere”.

Sergey and Nikita are insistent that they do not need an actual live mammoth to carry out their plans, so this will irritate them to no end — but I personally find a certain poetic beauty in the idea that wooly mammoths, driven to extinction by short sighted humans 10,000 years ago, could yet save us from our own modern day poor judgment. Of course, another caveat:  nothing is going to save us if we don’t take steps to save ourselves and stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.  But in the short term mammoths, and/or their ecosystem, can keep permafrost frozen and prevent a worst case scenario that is far worse that the current worse case scenarios.  In the longer term they can start the slow process of reversing the damage we have done.  And as Sergey likes to point out, it’s extremely cheap. This has got to be among the fattest, lowest hanging fruit there is to mitigate climate change. The Zimovs, who have little time or tolerance for bureaucracy of any sort, have embarked on this project with no financial support from governments, non profit foundations, or corporations. To date the entire thing has been funded by their personal income running the research station, feeding and housing foreign researchers, and maintaining their experiments when the foreigners depart for somewhere more civilized.

Tower maintenance

This DIY approach to global salvation may have limits. I find it hard to imagine they can take it to the next level without support from outside entities. On the other hand they have surprised everybody by taking it this far. One question remains:  will the mammoths cooperate?  Because as we all know, an elephant never forgets, and after 10,000 years on ice they may still have beef with our species.  Who wouldn’t?

Some Links:

-Here is a short article Sergey wrote in Science magazine detailing his plan:

-Here is an excellent article by Adam Wolf that goes into more details.  It also has some wonderful illustrations:

-Here is a link to the official website for Pleistocene Park.  Lots of good photos:

-And here is a link to the Facebook page for the documentary I am making about the project:
Please “like” it if you are interested in learning more about the progress of Sergey and Nikita’s project.  The documentary is still in the very early stages, research, preliminary shooting, and initial fundraising.  Expect it somewhere near you in 2-3 years.


By Luke Griswold-Tergis (@Lukegrstrg), all images courtesy of Luke Griswold-Tergis.

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