Russian scientist hopes to slow the melting of the Arctic

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Russian scientist hopes to slow the melting of the Arctic
Russian scientist hopes to slow the melting of the Arctic

Sergei Zimov, having climbed to the top of a cliff in the very north of Russia, takes off his beret and his long gray hair falls over his back. His eyes light up as he bows his head and turns his gaze to the frozen ground. In the faint shimmer of this never ending day, he looks like a figure taken from the gilded background of a Russian Orthodox icon.

Mr. Zimov, whose last name has a common root with the word "winter", lives with his wife Galina in a simple wooden house located in the village of Chersky, and this is the very edge of the borders of Russia - north of Reykjavik and east of Tokyo. In their house, in the bedroom, the tusks of a woolly mammoth lie on the floor. And outside the window flows the Kolyma River. This area is unsuitable for human life, since the temperature here drops below minus 50 degrees in winter, and in summer clouds of mosquitoes obscure the sky and make it black. “To be a prophet, you have to live in the wilderness,” says Mr. Zimov.

In Soviet times, few people came to the Kolyma of their own free will. This region was considered one of the harshest and coldest parts of the Gulag. In 1960, when Zimov arrived there, the camps were already closed, but the frost remained. For the first few years I had to live without electricity, use kerosene lamps, and carry water from the river. The remoteness of the village of Chersky has its advantages. “We felt free here,” far from the eyes of the Communist Party, Galina says. Drawing on his degree in geophysics, as well as his freedom-loving spirit, Mr. Zimov co-founded the Northeast Arctic Research Station, after which he devoted all his time to exploring the High North.

In the mid-1980s, he predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. He stocked up on supplies. “When a drought hits, the branches farthest are the first to dry out,” he explains. He is proud of his other predictions, including the oil price collapse in 2014. He encourages everyone who is ready to hear him to invest in gold.

Kolyma stories

However, most of all, Mr. Zimov worries about the ecological apocalypse. For more than 20 years, he and his son Nikita have inhabited an area of 160 square kilometers (62 square miles) that they call Pleistocene Park - yaks, horses, sheep, bulls and other herbivores.

Mr. Zimov expects that the animals will trample down the bushes, as well as moss and larch trees growing in this area, and prepare these lands for the creation of the pastures that existed here in the Pleistocene period, during the ice age, which began 2, 6 million years ago and ended 12 thousand years ago. In his opinion, this will slow down the melting of permafrost, a process that leads to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that accelerate climate change. “I’m building an ark,” he describes his project in large metaphorical terms - and without any hint of irony.

About a quarter of Earth's western hemisphere, an area twice the size of America, rests on soil that has remained frozen for at least two years. One of the researchers in the 18th century talked about how iron shovels broke when they stumbled upon such layers of soil. Mikhail Sumgin, a Soviet-era scientist who pioneered the study of the frozen land, often referred to this phenomenon as the "Russian Sphinx." The technical term "permafrost" (permafrost) was coined by Sumgin.

However, it is not constant, as was previously thought. While the Earth itself is warming up at an alarming rate, the Arctic is warming up twice as fast. Throughout this region, soil begins to soften, leading to the destruction and deformation of roads, buildings, pipelines and coastlines.

The damage itself to infrastructure and human livelihoods is alarming. However, another danger lies below the surface - large reserves of organic material, including the roots of ancient plants and animal skeletons, which have been preserved in the ice for millions of years. As the permafrost melts, this organic material becomes a breeding ground for microbes, which in turn convert it into carbon dioxide and methane. These gases are accelerating the warming of our planet, which is contributing to the melting of the permafrost, and as a result, a feedback loop with potentially catastrophic consequences is formed.

“We can move away from fossil fuels, we can stop deforestation, but when it comes to permafrost, these are spillovers,” said Robert Max Holmes, deputy director of the US Climate Research Center. Woodwell Climate Research Center. "We have no direct relationship to this, so this process is much more difficult to control."

Cold as ice

The northern permafrost contains 1,600 billion tons of carbon, double what is currently found in the atmosphere and three times what is found in forests around the world. This carbon pool is often referred to as a "bomb", but the permafrost behaves more like a leaky pipe. How much and how quickly will flow out of this pipe depends on many factors, and not least on the desire of mankind to limit its own emissions of greenhouse gases.

There are very different estimates. According to some experts, if efforts to contain climate change are successful, the permafrost will be able to absorb more carbon than it will release into the atmosphere. According to other experts, permafrost is a net emitter, although the volumes of its emissions are negligible in comparison with that generated by human beings. But if humans continue to emit the same amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then - according to widely accepted models - this century permafrost will emit 5% to 15% of its carbon stores into the atmosphere, in which case global warming will increase by 0, 27 degrees. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives society a carbon budget of 580 billion tonnes; moreover, about a quarter of this volume may be permafrost emissions.

Even the most positive forecasts face problems associated with the complexities of the permafrost melting process itself, which experts are just beginning to understand. Most of the models proposed by climate experts assume that permafrost will thaw gradually, over several centimeters over decades, over vast areas, a process that has already been called "gradual thaw". However, permafrost experts are also concerned that melted pockets of ice can cause rapid soil erosion or abrupt thaw. Landscapes are eroding and sinkholes are formed, revealing higher carbon permafrost layers, which also increase temperatures. Water can also fill "thermokarst" lakes above the level of previously unfrozen soil. These kinds of environmental trends are attracting microbes that can produce methane. The more permafrost is studied, the more often, according to Ted Schuur of Northern Arizona University, scientists are faced with "surprises that were previously not well known to us."

Along the river south of Cherskiy, Mr. Zimov demonstrates how different some areas of permafrost are. Here, the permafrost structure is more like honeycomb and does not have a pronounced level structure. The melting process does not occur evenly over the entire plane, but water seeps between the formed cells and, solidifying, forms ice around the polygonal cores. As the ice begins to melt, voids form between the cells, making the soil look like a mountainside track prepared for a ski mogul. Mr. Zimov compares this process to “cracks in clay or on the canvases of ancient masters”.

Some experts were ahead of others in their search for answers to the riddles of the "Russian Sphinx". “Every scientist today recognizes the importance of the hydrocarbon contained in permafrost,” notes Mr. Zimov. "In many ways, this can be considered Zimov's merit."

In 1993, Mr. Zimov and a group of Russian co-authors published an article in the American Geophysical Union's Journal of Geophysical Research, where it was said that hydrocarbons come out of the active layers of the Arctic permafrost in winter, and not only in the summer, as was commonly believed earlier. Scientists began to visit the Chersky settlement more often to conduct research. Together with a group of American colleagues, Mr. Zimov published a series of articles in which it was said that permafrost contains significantly more greenhouse gases than was commonly believed. “Every time Sergei and I talked about something that at first seemed strange and meaningless to us, he ended up being right and sooner or later convinced us of this,” says F. Stuart Chapin, ecologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the co-authors of the mentioned publications.

In addition, Mr. Zimov has privatized the cape and incorporated it into a global research center. Maintaining an international research station in the Arctic presents a logistical challenge at best. In post-Soviet Russia, this required a combination of resourcefulness and cunning. Bruce Forbes of the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland recalls his trips to Chersky in the 1990s. According to him, these were "post-apocalyptic pictures - children set fire to empty houses for entertainment." “The moment we arrived at this place, it was the end of the world,” says Vladimir Romanovsky, head of the University of Alaska's Permafrost Laboratory at Fairbanks. “But he turned this place into one of the best research stations in the permafrost zone.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Zimov continues to be a controversial figure. His unceremonious behavior alienated many people from him. “My father is not a very big diplomat,” Nikita says, and sighs - he himself has accumulated considerable experience in this regard. Mr. Zimov's harsh personality traits, as well as his wild theories, cast a shadow over his scientific discoveries. Mr. Zimov belongs to a scientific tradition in Russia that welcomes big, ambitious theories and overcomes disciplinary barriers. It brings to mind such Russian scholars of the early twentieth century as Vladimir Vernadsky, who achieved significant achievements and was a pioneer in fields such as geochemistry. In addition, he developed the concept of the biosphere, which includes Russian cosmism, a movement whose goal is to conquer death and conquer the stars. Mr. Zimov, starting from his ideas, conducts research only to the extent that he can prove to himself that he is right.“He's okay when it comes to using a sample size of one,” says Mr. Chapin. But this could be alarming for Western scientists who focus on data analysis and work in highly specialized fields.

Mr. Zimov's concepts lack rigorous data, and he simply compensates for this deficiency through deep contact with the environment. During one of his tests in the lower reaches of this river, he pierces the ground with a metal pole, wanting to show where the permafrost begins. He can determine the condition of the soil by the sound it makes. In 2018, Zimov noticed that the active layers of permafrost in winter no longer freeze. The average temperature at all test points turned out to be eight degrees higher than just ten years ago - earlier its temperature was minus 6 degrees, and now it is plus 2 degrees. In the Bering Strait region from the Alaska side, Mr. Romanovsky observed the same phenomenon in several dozen locations.

To look at the lower layers, Mr. Zimov has to spend several hours and get to one place downstream of the river called Duvanny Yar. The air there is filled with a pungent sulfurous odor. Millions of years of geological history are represented there along the river bank. Mr. Zimov lifts the bone. “Mammoth,” he says.

At a time when woolly mammoths roamed the land, the Far North looked more like the modern African savannah. Abundant pastures stretched throughout Siberia, Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. Besides mammoths, there were bison, horses, elk and deer. Wolves and cave lions monitored population rates. But when the Holocene came to replace the Pleistocene, large herbivores became extinct. And after their disappearance, the landscape also changed. Dry grasses have turned into moist and mossy tundra.

One of the long-standing explanations is that the mass extinction of animals was associated with a warming climate. However, Mr. Zimov believes that the milder climate only makes it easier for real villains to appear. In an article published in 1995 in the American Naturalist magazine, he says that hunting and hunters are responsible for the extinction of megafauna throughout the High North.

According to Mr. Zimov, a turn in the opposite direction of this process and the revival of pastures can become a key element in the preservation of permafrost. This would mean the return of large mammals, which could trample moss, cut down trees and loosen the soil, allowing you to regain grass growth. Grass is able to reflect more light and thus reduce the soil's absorption of heat, and it can also capture more carbon in its roots than does current flora.

This kind of logic is at the heart of the Pleistocene Park. Mr. Zimov wants to expand this park to include Alaska and Canada. Together with his son, he even dreams of someday breeding woolly mammoths, they have already established contact with George Church of Harvard University, who hopes to revive these ancient animals using gene editing technologies based on the CRISPR system.

Apparently, some aspects of Mr. Zimov's theories find confirmation, although they may seem paradoxical. Take, for example, the trees he wants to destroy. In temperate regions, trees absorb carbon, and cutting them down causes this gas to be released into the atmosphere. In the far north, more carbon is found in the soil itself than in sparse forests. Deforestation can, in general, have a positive effect, as it will keep permafrost at a lower temperature and also prevent it from being destroyed by organic materials. And the same thing happens with the thermal effect of snow, which Mr. Romanovsky calls a "powerful insulator."At its test sites in Fairbanks, a thick layer of snow can raise soil temperatures by three to four degrees. According to Mr. Zimov, animals can also help to pack snow in winter, thus reducing this effect.

Ark of history

The results of the Pleistocene Park can be called quite promising. Currently, the presence of Yakut horses, bison, musk oxen, elk, deer, sheep, yaks and Kalmyk breeds of cattle there helps to restore pastures. The average soil temperature in pastures is 2, 2 degrees lower. In addition, in such places, more carbon is absorbed in the upper soil layers.

For advocates of a radical wildlife revival, Zimov's father and son offer very tempting prospects. “The question now is what the scale might be,” says Mr. Forbes of the University of Lapland and asks the question: “How many animals would actually be needed for this process?” Oxford University researchers working with Nikita published a study in 2020 that concluded that restoring the wild state of the Arctic to the desired impact on emissions is a mammoth task. This will mean raising thousands of animals there, which will require the support of the government and local residents. A feasibility study for such a project involving approximately 3,000 animals would cost $ 114 million.

Some see this kind of effort and expense as an attempt to shift the focus away from overall emission reductions, which is the surest way to keep our planet - and permafrost - from warming. Skeptics doubt that pastures will help preserve permafrost, and that the presence of herbivores won't have any other side effect.

Zimov's father and son are determined and intend to continue their work. The implementation of their projects largely depends on willpower. Nikita was once able to use crowdfunding to raise 100 thousand dollars to purchase a herd of 100 bison, and he himself then transported them from Denmark to the village of Chersky. They were brought there by barge at midnight in mid-July 2019, just as your correspondent was there.

After the buffalo were released into the wild, the Zimovs went to the dining room of this research station to properly celebrate. They poured moonshine for everyone, a strong Russian home-made drink, and proclaimed a toast to the health of the animals they had brought in (all the buffalo successfully survived the first winter). After that, Mr. Zimov went outside to smoke and sat down next to the huge satellite antenna that has been decorating the station since Soviet times. “It used to provide communication with the Party, and now it serves to communicate with God,” he jokes, pointing to a large plate. "God is sending us a signal to gather animals here."