How can ordinary herbivores help to preserve permafrost and why are pastures a great way to prevent climate change? Correspondent of News.Ykt.Ru Anna Lebedinskaya met Nikita Zimov, the Director of the Pleistocene Park.
"Our project is quite ambitious," says Nikita Zimov. Our goal is to create the northern Serengeti (Serengeti Park is an ecoregion in East Africa with an area of about 30 thousand square kilometers. The area is densely populated with African animals that live there in the same way as thousands of years ago - editor’s note). To do this, we need to bring as many herbivores as possible to the Arctic tundra, which will help restore pastures here."
The fact that herds of bison, yaks and other artiodactyls once grazed on the Kolyma expanses is evidenced by a large number of bones found along the banks of rivers and lakes. Reservoirs erode the thawed soil and expose not only the remains of animals, but also impending problems - the melting of permafrost.
"Over the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed by three degrees, the average annual temperature has become minus eight. And the permafrost warmed by the same three degrees, from minus six to minus three. If this continues further, we are waiting for global destruction of infrastructure, and not only in Arctic areas," says Nikita Zimov.
According to the scientist, the last five years there have been very warm winters and even a period was recorded when the active permafrost layer did not freeze at all. This forms leaks and drawdowns.
Duvanny Yar area, Nizhnekolymsky district. There are melting ice veins in the photo.
"There is 50% ice in our permafrost. Accordingly, if it melts, then the ice will disappear, and dips and subsidences will occur, in some places they will reach up to 20 meters. A striking example is the famous Batagai crater. If a collapse of this kind begins, the entire infrastructure of cities will be destroyed. Let’s look at Chersky village as an example. If warming continues, nothing will remain of it in the next 30 years, it will be destroyed, because it stands on 40-meter thicknesses of permafrost, 50% of which is ice. If everything starts to melt, the surface will sink, firstly, unevenly, and secondly, at least for 20 meters. Imagine the scale of the destruction," says Zimov.
The approximate damage, according to scientists' calculations, says Zimov, may amount to about 50-100 billion dollars.
What does pasture have to do with it?
The pasture ecosystem is like a large enterprise aimed at combating climate change, Nikita Zimov explains. "Herbivores grazing in the tundra are a tool. Where they are in large numbers, grass and cereals will always grow, but there won’t be shrubs or forests. Because that's how the cycle works. A good example is “Alasy” (enormous greenfields) in Yakutia. There are territories where animals have been grazing for hundreds of years, and grass always grows there. In winter, these animals actively trample snow, which by its nature is a good thermal insulator, and the higher the layer, the worse the freezing of the soil is," says Zimov.
Nikita's father, scientist Sergey Afanasyevich Zimov, was the first to create a pasture ecosystem, a Pleistocene Park. The name coincides with the time period for a reason, it was in the late Pleistocene, 40-30 thousand years ago, millions of animals grazed freely on the shores of Kolyma.
"My father started the first experiments in 1988. He brought a batch of horses, published an article in a scientific journal, went to the local administration with this article, and gained funding for which the animals were purchased. They grazed on pastures, then the Soviet Union collapsed and the horses had to be given to some farmer on the other side of Kolyma, from where they then ran away safely," Nikita Zimov recalls.
Today, reindeer, moose, Kalmyk cows, Yakut horses, yaks, bulls, sheep, goats, bison and even camels live in the park. The latter, along with downy goats, were brought this year from Mongolia. There is also a large flock of swallows living at the station.
"When you see a large number of bones on the banks of rivers, you start to wonder: why were there so many animals then, and today there are so few of them? And it was decided to try to restore the lost ecosystem. The modern northern ecosystem does not support a high density of animals. We put them in this environment, they walk, trample vegetation, thereby accelerating the cycle. And through this influence of animals, grasses and cereals begin to grow better," says the director of the park.
People talk about global climate change all over the world today. But most often, the world scientific community names only two ways that can help solve problems: reducing hydrocarbon emissions and restoring forests. According to Zimovs, the creation of pastures in the North can also help in the fight against global warming.
"Trees accumulate carbon, on average five kilograms per square meter. The trees in the North are even smaller - two kilograms. In addition, in winter, larch trees in the Arctic are bare, and by April-May, the soil at the roots burns out, and the heat passes freely into the permafrost, thereby increasing its temperature. In the northern cold soils, much more carbon can be accumulated, since all vegetation germinates very slowly and the roots do not penetrate deeply. Larch has all the roots on the surface, mosses and lichens have no roots at all. If, instead of slow-growing trees, grasses and cereals begin to dominate, which grow quickly and need a lot of water, which are still constantly being pinched by someone, then these plants form the root system much more actively. They pump out a lot of water, respectively, the more they pump out, the deeper they have to grow roots, and the more carbon you have accumulated in the soils," explains Zimov.
According to the scientist, in northern soils it is possible to accumulate from 10 to 16 kilograms of carbon per square meter, and in general in Russia this figure can reach up to 100 kilograms, which is 50 times more than in trunks of trees.
"The territory of Russia is about 17 million square kilometers, and about nine million of them are permafrost. If we take even a third of this territory and create the northern Serengeti, this will allow Russia to absorb 10-20% of the entire global anthropogenic mission. That is, to cover our needs and also to sell quotas to other countries that cost serious money. Accordingly, if we do what we are doing in our small park, but on a more serious scale, it will be billions of rubles in revenue for the country. Therefore, what we are doing, I think, is a serious socially significant project," says Nikita Zimov.
Pleistocene Park today
The large-scale project grew out of a small scientific station opened in Chersky in 1980. Then several young scientists came to the village in the direction, who then created families. Two couples, the Zimovs and the Davydovs, continue to live at the station today.
Founder of the Pleistocene Park, Sergey Zimov
Nikita Zimov has been managing the research station and the park since 2009. In fact, since the creation of the park in 1996, the entire project has been a private scientific laboratory. During this time, the Zimovs have published many scientific articles, including in the main scientific publication, in the “Science” journal. Chersky is regularly visited by researchers from all over the world. In recent years, interest in the park has been growing from the media. Thus, the TV channel "Russia-24" has already released one film about a unique object on Kolyma, now the film crew is preparing to shoot the second one.
"For many years we have been doing everything with only enthusiasm. There were some small investments from scientists who came to us. Basically, we maintain the station on grants and sponsorship, about two years ago we launched a global donation collection site. Now various corporations are coming to us, some offer assistance in organizing the delivery of animals," says Nikita Zimov.
In the nearest future, we expect the replenishment at the station - a second batch of 12 bison is coming from Denmark. This time it was decided to organize transportation by water, along the Northern Sea Route.
"These are American steppe bison, there are about 400 of them on a farm in Denmark. We delivered the first batch in 2019 by car, we drove for 35 days. Although Denmark is quite far from Yakutia and the climate there is completely different, there is almost no snow and severe frosts, the animals showed themselves well. In the first winter it was minus 55 in Chersky, but despite this, the animals did not enter the cowsheds prepared for them, and in 2020 they have already fully adapted to our conditions and even gave offspring," the scientist says.
The most important thing today, says the scientist - is to prepare well for winter. The park has a good feed base, but in order to survive the winter, it was decided to order 45 tons of oats and mixed feed from Arkhangelsk. There is also a barge with hay coming from the upper Kolyma.
According to Zimov, in the near future they will go on an expedition to Anabar district for musk oxen. ALROSA, together with the Ministry of Ecology of Yakutia and the Directorate for Specially Protected Areas, who are interested in the scientific developments of the park, are ready to help catch a batch of 20-25 heads. If the trip is successful, the animals will arrive at the park at the end of September.
"We want to return nature to the state it used to be in. 30 thousand years ago, you could climb the nearest hill and see about two to three thousand animals at a time," says Nikita Zimov.
Nikita Zimov's wife Anastasia, who Nikita met while he was studying in Novosibirsk, helps him manage a large-scale project. The woman was not stopped by severe frosts or the polar night. Today Anastasia is in charge of accounting, personnel and various bureaucratic issues at the station. "Noone is as good as her in this deal," says Zimov about his wife.
Sergey Afanasievich now lives and works in Tula, where the scientist also created a park with animals. The area of the Tula park is about 500 thousand hectares.
You can learn more about the activities of the park on the official website pleistocenepark.ru The latest news about the life of animals can be seen on his Instagram page.
Photo: Alexander Fedorov, Vadim Skryabin, instagram.com/pleistocenepark
Author: Anna Lebedinskaya