A father and son’s Ice Age plan to stop the thaw of Siberia

In one of the coldest places on the planet, 130 km south of Russia’s Arctic coast, scientist Sergey Zimov cannot find signs of permafrost as global warming permeates the soil of Siberia.

As everything from mammoth bones to ancient vegetation frozen within for millennia melts and decomposes, it now threatens to release vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

Zimov, who has studied permafrost from his scientific base in the diamond-producing Yakutia region for decades, is seeing the effects of climate change in real time.

Driving a thin metal pole for yards into Siberian grass, where temperatures are rising at more than three times the world average, with hardly any force, the 66-year-old is a given.

“This is one of the coldest places on earth and there is no permafrost,” he says. “Methane has never risen in the atmosphere at the rate it is today … I think this is related to our permafrost.”

Permafrost covers 65% of the Russian landmass and about a quarter of the northern landmass. Scientists say that greenhouse gas emissions from its thaw could eventually equal or even exceed industrial emissions from the European Union due to the large volume of decomposing organic matter.

Meanwhile, permafrost emissions, which are considered natural, are not counted against government promises to curb emissions or into the spotlight in UN climate talks.

Delegates sit during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Great Britain, on November 1, 2021. (Credit: REUTERS / YVES HERMAN)

Zimov, with his white beard and cigarette, ignored orders to leave the Arctic when the Soviet Union collapsed and instead found funds to keep the Northeast Research Station operating near the partially abandoned city of Chersky.

Citing data from a network of global monitoring stations run by the United States, Zimov says he now believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that permafrost has started to release greenhouse gases.

Despite factories reducing activity around the world during the pandemic, which also dramatically slowed global transportation, Zimov says the concentration of methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased at a faster rate.

Entire cities sit on permafrost and its thawing could cost Russia 7 trillion rubles ($ 100 billion) in damage by 2050 if the rate of warming continues, scientists say.

Assuming that permafrost would never melt, many houses, pipelines and roads in the far north and east of Russia are sinking and increasingly in need of repair.


Zimov wants to stop the thaw in an area of ​​Yakutia by populating a nature reserve called the Pleistocene Park with large herbivores such as bison, horses and camels.

These animals trample the snow, making it much more compact so that the winter cold can reach the ground, rather than acting like a thick insulating blanket.

Zimov and his son Nikita 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 to other areas.

The bison were trucked and shipped this summer from Denmark, along the North Sea Route, past polar bears and walruses and through storms that lasted for weeks, before their ship finally made its way into the mouth of the river. Kolyma River to its new home some 6,000 kilometers to the east. .

The Zimovs’ surreal plan for geoengineering a cooler future has been extended to provide a home for mammoths, which other scientists hope to resurrect from extinction with genetic techniques, in order to mimic the region’s ecosystem during the last Ice Age that ended 11,700 years ago. .

An article published in Nature’s Scientific Reports last year, where both Zimovs were listed as authors, showed that animals in the Pleistocene Park had cut the average snow depth in half and the average annual soil temperature by 1.9 degrees Celsius, with an even bigger drop. in winter and spring.

More work is needed to determine whether such “unconventional” methods could be an effective climate change mitigation strategy, but the density of animals in the Pleistocene Park (114 individuals per square kilometer) should be feasible on a pan-arctic scale, he said.

And global-scale models suggest that the introduction of large herbivores into the tundra could prevent 37% of the Arctic’s permafrost from thawing, according to the paper.


Nikita Zimov, Sergey’s son, was walking through the shallow waters of the Kolyma River in Duvanny Yar in September when he pulled out a mammoth tusk and tooth.

Such finds have been common for years in Yakutia and particularly in rivers where water erodes permafrost.

A three-hour boat ride from Chersky, the riverbank provides a cross section of the thaw, with a thick layer of exposed ice melting and dripping under layers of dense black soil containing tiny roots.

“If you take the weight of all these decaying roots and organic compounds in the Yakutian permafrost alone, you will find that the weight is greater than the terrestrial biomass of the planet,” says Nikita.

Scientists say that, on average, the world has warmed by one degree in the last century, while in Yakutia over the past 50 years, the temperature has risen by three degrees.

Major Zimov says that he has seen for himself how winters have become shorter and milder, while Alexander Fedorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, says he no longer has to wear fur clothing during the colder months.

But addressing permafrost emissions, such as fire and other so-called natural emissions, presents a challenge because they are not fully accounted for in climate models or international agreements, scientists say.

“The difficulty is the quantity,” says Chris Burn, a Carleton University professor and president of the International Permafrost Association.

“One to two percent of the carbon in permafrost is equivalent to total global emissions for one year.”

Scientists estimate that permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere contains about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon, about twice what is currently in the atmosphere, or about three times more than all the trees and plants on earth.

Nikita says there is no one-size-fits-all solution to global warming.

“We are working to show that these ecosystems will help in the fight, but of course our efforts alone are not enough.”


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