One Russian scientist's hobby: recreating the ice age

By Arthur Max

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 27 2010 10:15 p.m. MST

CHERSKY, Russia — Wild horses have returned to northern Siberia. So have musk oxen, hairy beasts that once shared this icy land with woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats. Moose and reindeer are here, and may one day be joined by Canadian bison and deer.

Later, the predators will come — Siberian tigers, wolves and maybe leopards.

Russian scientist Sergey Zimov is reintroducing these animals to the land where they once roamed in millions to demonstrate his theory that filling the vast emptiness of Siberia with grass-eating animals can slow global warming.

"Some people have a small garden. I have an ice age park. It's my hobby," says Zimov, smiling through his graying beard. His true profession is quantum physics.

Climate change is felt most sharply in the Arctic, where temperatures are warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. Most climate scientists say human activity, especially industrial pollution and the byproducts of everyday living like home heating and driving cars, is triggering an unnatural warming of the Earth. On Monday, negotiators representing 194 countries open a two-week conference in Cancun, Mexico, on reducing greenhouse gases to slow the pace of climate change.

Zimov is trying to recreate an ecosystem that disappeared 10,000 years ago with the end of the ice age, which closed the 1.8 million-year Pleistocene era and ushered in the global climate roughly as we know it.

He believes herds of grazers will turn the tundra, which today supports only spindly larch trees and shrubs, into luxurious grasslands. Tall grasses with complex root systems will stabilize the frozen soil, which is now thawing at an ever-increasing rate, he says.

Herbivores keep wild grass short and healthy, sending up fresh shoots through the summer and autumn. Their manure gives crucial nourishment. In winter, the animals trample and flatten the snow that otherwise would insulate the ground from the cold air. That helps prevent the frozen ground, or permafrost, from thawing and releasing powerful greenhouse gases. Grass also reflects more sunlight than forests, a further damper to global warming.

It would take millions of animals to change the landscape of Siberia and effectively seal the permafrost. But left alone, Zimov argues, the likes of caribou, buffalo and musk oxen multiply quickly. Wherever they graze "new pastures will appear ... beautiful grassland."

The project is being watched not only by climate scientists but by paleontologists and environmentalists who have an interest in "rewilding."

"This is a very interesting experiment," said Adrian Lister, of the Natural History Museum in London. "I think it's valid from an ecological point of view to put back animals that did formerly live there," he told AP Television News. He disapproved of suggestions to rewild nonnative species — for example, relocating elephants and rhinos to the American plains.

Zimov began the project in 1989, fencing off 160 square kilometers (40,000 acres) of forest, meadows, shrub land and lakes. It is surrounded by another 600 square kilometers (150,000 acres) of wilderness.

It is an offshoot of the Northeast Science Station, which he founded and where he has lived for 30 years. Already icebound by October, the park is 40 kilometers (25 miles) inland from the station, accessible only by boat in summer and by snow vehicles after the rivers freeze.

A 32-meter (105-foot) tower inside the park gives constant readings of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor. The data feeds into a global monitoring system overseen by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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