By Alex Bruce-Smith – 10 Daily
Could bringing back mammoths be the key to reversing the effects of climate change?
An eccentric scientist in the far north of Russia wants to revive the long-extinct mammoth, which he thinks could help reverse the effects of climate change and the thawing of the Siberian permafrost.
Sergey Zimov has spent decades studying the permafrost from his isolated Siberian station, warning of greenhouse gases — long-trapped in the ice — being released into the atmosphere as the ice melts.
His plan to reverse the effects of climate change in the region and bring back the permafrost is to return the landscape to how it would have looked during the Pleistocene Era (2.6 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago): no trees, plenty of bison, and if possible, mammoths.
Woolly mammoths, which went extinct between 45,000 and 12,000 years ago, used to roam the plains of Siberia freely, Zimov said, trampling shrubs, moss and trees and leaving only grasses behind.
Somewhere between their climate warming and mankind hunting them — the science is divided — mammoths went extinct.
Zimov’s work is about preventing the further melt of permafrost, which is soil, rock or sediment frozen for more than two consecutive years. As permafrost melts, microbes consume the thawing plant and animal matter inside, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the earth’s atmosphere.
Zimov has been warning the scientific community for years that permafrost held more carbon than anyone knew, but only recently was his work taken seriously.
And yes, mammoths really are key to furthering his work. He doesn’t need them, but it would make the whole thing a lot easier.
“It’s like, do you need your right arm to live and do your job?” he recently told CBS’s 60 Minutes.
“No, you don’t need it, but with your arm, you will do it better. So, same with mammoth.”
Since 1996, he has been turning a 144 square kilometre piece of park gifted by the Russian government into a Pleistocene Era wilderness.
It’s now called the Pleistocene Park. Zimov has been cutting down trees, because they trap heat better than grass, and slowly reintroducing big grazers: moose, reindeer, yaks, Yakutian horses and Kalmykian cattle.
He boasts of data to support his theory, too; the Pleistocene Park Foundation claims a 17 degree temperature difference inside the park versus outside, of -24 degrees versus -7 degrees.
But in his sights is the reintroduction of the woolly mammoth, which if all goes right, could be just a decade away.
Harvard geneticist George Church, a leading expert who heads the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival project, has harvested DNA from mammoth bones found in the region.
Growing a mammoth would require Church to splice the mammoth DNA with that of modern day elephants. Luckily, Church is considered a pioneer of the Crispr gene-editing tool, which is paving the way for “de-extinction”.
“If you look at the 23 genomes of the elephants there’s lots of evidence of lots of interbreeding all over the place among the different so-called species. So, in a way we’re just recreating a hybrid that could easily have existed,” he told 60 Minutes.
He estimates that if all goes to plan, he could be shipping a hybrid elephant-mammoth to Siberia before too long.
“I would say that probably in five years we’ll know whether we can get this to work for mice, and maybe pigs and elephants,” he said.
“And then if we can get embryos to grow in the laboratory all the way to term, then it’s probably a decade.”
The debate around de-extinction often comes down to whether or not scientists should be playing god, but Zimov takes a different approach.
“You know, I think it’s not me playing god,” he told 60 Minutes.
“It was our ancestors who was playing God 15,000 years ago. Humans came, and they dropped the number of animals worldwide. And we are just trying to…. I don’t know, get it back.”