In one of the most remote and brutal locations on Earth, northeast Siberia, a pioneering rewilding project, with a name inspired by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie, could well make a big impact in our battle against climate change. Founded by Russian geophysicist Sergey Zimov, Pleistocene Park is now being realised under the current management of his son Nikita Zimov, who last Friday visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to share his fantastic tales of adventure in exciting new conservation practices, and spark some hope that through working with nature, we can go some way to avert climate crisis.
Firstly, what even is rewilding?
The organisation Rewilding Britain defines rewilding as the process of restoring ecosystems to allow nature to take care of itself, and can involve the reintroduction of missing species to help change and shape the environment, to create a balance between nature and humans. It is a new approach to conservation which although in its early stages is gathering momentum. Dr Paul Jepson, director of the Biodiversity, Conservation and Management course at Oxford University, and a panellist at the event, sees rewilding as a reassessment of conservation approaches; a much more hopeful alternative to more negative traditional conservation narratives, with thinking being done through action to start making a positive impact on the environment.
Why isn’t northeast Siberia a wild landscape?
The wetland and forest ecosystems which characterise northeast Siberia today are a product of destructive human influences on the landscape. Before human presence in the Arctic, the landscape was dominated by the Mammoth steppe, a huge grassland which at the time was the largest biome in the world. It was maintained by the grazing and trampling of large mammals, allowing grasses to flourish and rapid nutrient cycling processes to take place, contributing to the Yedoma permafrost, a huge permanently frozen mass of biomatter which is 40m thick in places, containing vast amounts of carbon.
However, around 14,650 years ago this all changed, as a climate warming event allowed humans to expand into the Arctic  who through hunting drove populations of large mammals down, with some species such as mammoth being eradicated from the area completely. Through continually keeping the large mammal populations low, nutrient cycling slowed, and seeds were left to grow into forests, replacing the grasslands. Without the grasses, transpiration rates slowed, leading to water accumulation and wetland formation, which eventually became the stable ecosystem we see today.
Why is Pleistocene Park trying to save the Yedoma, a climate ‘time bomb’?
Across the planet, permafrost contains a total of 1.7 trillion tonnes of carbon, which is roughly double the amount which is found in the atmosphere , and with global warming causing the thaw of lake ice and permafrost, unfrozen biomatter is now being decomposed, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. This has been branded as a climate ‘time bomb’, which needs urgent attention to avoid the possibility of huge carbon output and runaway climate change.
The Yedoma permafrost within the wetland and forest ecosystems is melting too due to global warming, with a rapid 1-4m of local river banks being eroded each year. Nikita illustrates the potential force of this carbon release through a home video, where cutting a hole through the ice and holding a flame over it, a huge fireball is released as the bubbling methane ignites. A scary picture of what lies beneath this ever-decreasing protective layer.
How is Pleistocene Park using rewilding to fight climate change?
The main goal of the park is to reintroduce missing species, in this case large mammals which were driven out by humans, letting them restore the mammoth steppe grasslands to cool and protect the Yedoma permafrost. Mammoths being extinct of course, are out of the equation, however other missing species are just as important in restoring the grasslands. So far, key species of Moose, Horse, Reindeer, Musk Ox and Yak have been brought to the park, often involving trips to some of the most remote place on the planet to find them. Nikita recounts an epic sailing voyage through the icefields to collect Musk Oxen from Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, getting caught in a storm on the way back - with them all on board!
Once in the park, a fenced area of currently 1600 hectares (so they don’t all run away), the animals can be left to their own devices, bulldozering their way through the forests knocking down trees, allowing the grasslands to grow back again.
Woah, hang on a minute! I thought forests are a great means of carbon drawdown?
Not here. The Larch forests of northeast Siberia have a low organic soil content, whereas the highly productive grasslands accelerate nutrient cycling, with deeper roots drawing more carbon down and drying the soils. As the grasses are a lighter colour than the forests and are often covered in snow, they also have a much higher albedo, meaning more solar radiation is reflected back into space, cooling the permafrost and preventing it from melting. On top of this, by trampling and foraging, the animals also break up the insulating layer of snow to expose soils, cooling the permafrost further. Together, they are one fantastic permafrost protection team!
Pleistocene Park is already experiencing a transition back to the mammoth steppe, and a resulting increase in soil carbon content. This is a simple, low-tech, and highly cost-effective way of caring for our planet, which should fill us all with optimism that working alongside nature could well be the blueprint to fight climate change.
Find out more about Pleistocene Park, permafrost, and check out a video of permafrost methane explosions here:
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.