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Thawing permafrost: how buffaloes and deer may save us from climate catastrophe

MOSCOW, January 29. /TASS/. The warming, which threatens the humanity with "waking up" ancient microbes and migration of major animal and bird populations, is an extremely scary process, scientists say. However, other experts share the opinion this process may be stopped by remarkably elementary means.

For a few decades Director of the Academy of Sciences’ North-East research station, ecologist Sergei Zimov with a team of enthusiasts has pointed to potential threats to humanity from the thawing permafrost: the natural gas releases and their hard-to-foresee climate-related consequences, degradation of roads, bridges, houses, emission of greenhouse gases, revival of long forgotten diseases and spread of yet unknown illnesses. This list is not exhaustive.

The cloven-footed can make miracles

Sergei Zimov graduated from the Far Eastern University in hydrology. He moved to Yakutia in 1980, and in 1996 he founded the permafrost’s research center - the unique Pleistocene Park. According to the scientist, reconstruction of the ecosystem, which was there millenniums ago, is the only way to stop the warming. This sounds complicated, he said, but the solution is rather simple.

The Pleistocene Park is a nature reserve in Yakutia’s north-east, in the lower reaches of the Kolyma, 30 kilometers from the Chersky village, 150 kilometers south from the Arctic Ocean. There the scientist restores the ancient ecosystem - he breeds Yakut horses, reindeer, elks, sheep, musk oxen, yaks, buffalos, and wild cows. In summer 2019, the reserve received 12 buffaloes.

By tramping snow, the animals keep the permafrost’s temperature. Thawing is a huge problem for people living in Yakutia, as most houses, electricity lines and roads are built on the permafrost.

Climate changes are obvious

People in Yakutia’s Arctic districts feel the climate changes, the scientist said.

"A huge area in Yakutia’s south and south-east used to be the permafrost, but over two years it has developed into an area of discontinuous permafrost," he told TASS. "The average annual temperature there has grown from minus eleven to minus 7-8 degrees."

However, the permafrost’s temperature depends not only on the air temperature, but also on how and with what the soil is covered.

"Under thick moss the soil is colder, as the moss blanket would not allow warmth in winter," he said. "On the contrary, areas covered with fluffy snow are much warmer. Snow would not allow the soil to get frozen."

In March 2017, the snow layer was 76 cm (the average is 35 cm), and in summer on the areas free from moss the soil thawed more than two meters deep. In March 2018, the snow blanket was 90 cm high, and the thawed soil froze in winter less than one meter down.

In summer 2018, the degradation continued. In certain locations, unfrozen spots grew to 3.5 meters.

"Our permafrost is the soil of the mammoth steppe; it is rich in fresh organics and dozing microbes. When the permafrost degrades, the microbes wake up and start eating up the ancient organics - it is oxidation of organic matter, and any oxidation means emission of warmth. These ancient microbes wake up, and by growing concentration of hydrocarbon in the atmosphere we can see they breathe. In the north, the concentration has surged, most impressively over the autumn months, when thawing is most active. In autumn 2019, the biggest thawed areas in the Kolyma’s lower reaches grew to 4.12 meters!" the expert said with alarm.

Biggest stock of carbon

At the same time, the permafrost may be the warming’s main reason. "Every year our civilization burns and emits into the atmosphere 10 billion tonnes of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. Besides, we cut out and burn down tropical woods, which store 120 billion tonnes of carbon. But the main storage of organic carbon is not in woods, it is in the permafrost. In the form of organics it preserves 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon, and this is a fact everyone in the world knows perfectly well," the scientist said.

The biggest share of frozen carbon lays in Russia, and half of it - in Yakutia, he continued. "Noteworthy, carbon’s biggest part is in the upper, 3-meter, layer of soil, which may melt within a few years. Since the melting has begun even in the Kolyma’s lower reaches, the process may continue everywhere, and in that case carbon dioxide emissions from the permafrost will become bigger than those caused by human activities. In that event, all carbon dioxide cuts under the Paris Agreement will become negligible. Another threat is that under anaerobic conditions, microbes convert 10-25% of organic matter into methane instead of carbon dioxide. And it, as a greenhouse gas, is ten times stronger than carbon dioxide," he said.

According to the scientist, cooling the soil and permafrost is doable - for that it is necessary to have snow stepped down - it would become thinner, denser and thus less insulating.

How would that be possible on the area of a few million square kilometers? Where to find a million of those who could do it with enthusiasm? "This force exists in the region," the expert said. "Those are northern deer, horses, buffalos, musk oxen, bighorn sheep, deer, and roes. Throughout winter, they all in search for breakfast, lunch and dinner step, dig and shovel snow. At their pastures, the temperatures of soil and permafrost remain by 3-4 degrees lower than in areas where they do not go. If today we bring here dozens of thousands of buffalos, then in 20 years they will a population of millions."

In the past, the biggest ecosystem on the planet was the mammoth steppe - savanna. It spread from Spain to California and from Arctic islands to China. It dominated throughout huge territories regardless of the climate.

"It was a rich ecosystem, resembling the African savanna. The permafrost keeps bones of animals from times of that ecosystem. Per every square kilometer of northern pastures, in the past used to live at least one grown-up mammoth, five buffalos, seven horses, 15 northern deer, as well as more rare species - musk oxen, rhinos, antelopes, saiga antelopes, red deer, snow sheep, elks," he said.

Per every square kilometer used to live about 10,000 animals.

"Nowadays, even in Africa you cannot find that many places with such a density of animals," the scientist said. "Every year, 10,000 herbivores require 100 tonnes of hay, or one tonne per a hectare. This is an average productivity of today’s northern lawns. On rich moist soils, it could be times bigger. What was there in the mammoth steppe? Numerous animals within winter used to eat up everything that had grown up in summer, and whatever left after horses and mammoths was eaten up by oxen and deer."

Warm stomachs processed the organic stuff quickly, and nutritious substances within a few hours returned into the soil.

"Animals supported and expanded their pastures, they trampled down mosses, ate bushes, tree bark, and mammoths broke down excessive trees," the scientist said. "Animals formed the park landscape. In the past, pasture ecosystems prevailed in the world not due to climate changes, but - according to [scientist, a founder of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and radio-geology Vladimir] Vernadsky - the evolution, aimed at speeding up the bio turnover - the capital turnover."

We’ve got all we need

Many animals live in the region. "The Yakut horse should be returned to where it belongs. Nowadays, it has been overfed. In the past, it used to survive without given food. It is important to build up the population of northern deer, snow sheep, elk, red deer, roe deer. We should be bringing in buffalos and musk oxen. The region responds positively to this requirement, but actions should be more active," he said.

In the past, he continued, the park’s all meadows were swampy, and lately grass productivity has increased. While meadows are evaporating more water, the soil has dried up.

"Yakutia even now has many good pastures, and in future it will be the main landscape. In areas, where the high-ice permafrost melts, erosion begins. Modern soils slide down hills, revealing ancient fertile soils, which immediately get covered with grass - this is how pastures develop. Here will come the herbivores, they will shovel the snow to stop eventually the permafrost thawing," the scientist forecasted.

He does not see big difference between wild and domestic animals. Any half-domestic animal can become wild very quickly. "Making a wild animal out of a domestic buffalo or a Kalmyk domestic cow is as easy as making a free peasant out of a slave. Give to them freedom and land. I’ve tried it many times. Just give it freedom, and you’ll see a different animal, different behavior, different posture. Horses, buffalos, musk oxen for thousands years lived separately on different continents. But, whenever they meet, they remember at once that they come from the same ecosystem, from one team."

Have to pay for what is not produced

The scientist pointed to many countries, ready to pay billions and billions to cut at least a bit the emissions of carbon dioxide.

"Nowadays, climate exchanges trade quotas for greenhouse gas emissions. An average price for one tone of carbon dioxide is about $10-15, which means the price for carbon would make $30-40 per one tonne. Siberia’s stock of organic carbon is worth about $30 trillion or $40 trillion. It is 30 times more than the country’s all mineral resources. Thus, those roots, which have not got rotten in time, if calculated, cost tenfold more than all the oil, diamonds, molybdenum, and coal…"

If Russia manages to keep this carbon, not to allow it into the atmosphere, it will have a very profitable business, the expert said.

"We have our share of profit anyway: we have both livestock, we keep infrastructures, and we have rich landscapes. But we are unable to make money by trading carbon dioxide. At the same time, while trading of coal and oil requires production, transportation, big expenses, here we shall receive money not for what we mine, but, on the contrary, for what we do not produce. And this would be a truly big business. It’s a win-win project, where you do not have to persuade anyone. The material culture of our ethnic groups is not moss, nor trees; wood for heating does not require that many forests. The biggest wealth is the pastures with immense livestock. This is precisely what we must restore," he said in conclusion.