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RIA Novosti
August 31, 2007
Global warming ruining the tundra

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) - Scientists all over the world have been talking about global warming for a long time. Now some of the threats are becoming real.

Global climate change has prejudiced a unique environmental project of Russian scientists - a Pleistocene Park in the northeast of Russia, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in the lower reaches of the Kolyma, a tributary of the Lena River.

In the 1980s, scientist Sergei Zimov, now an expert on the environment with an international reputation, was in charge of the North-East Scientific Station run by the Russian Academy of Sciences. He decided to restore in the pre-polar tundra the environment of the Pleistocene era of 10,000 years ago, when the climate, flora and fauna had already become modern and humans started evolving into their present form.

A typical Pleistocene landscape in Northern Eurasia had flourishing steppes with opulent grass, which provided enough food for the giant mammoths, aurochs and buffalos. The mammoth paradise perished because of an environmental disaster. Many species of fauna disappeared and the rampant savannah gave way to today's marshlands, tundra and taiga.

It is still unclear what exactly caused this dramatic change. Some paleontologists attribute it to climate change. Zimov blames it on the aggressive primordial hunters, who barbarously killed the mega fauna. The latter's disappearance caused a decay in flora - moss and lichen ousted the grass, and soil turned into quagmire. Zimov thinks that the return of the animals will restore the environment. This is his idea of the Pleistocene Park.

Today, the park occupies 160 square km and is surrounded by a 20 km-long fence. The fence is an impressive structure - each five-meter-high post was pushed down into the permafrost two meters deep with hot steam, and a special net was spread between the posts to create a huge natural warren for different types of animals. The fence is required until the animals adapt to the territory and the former pastures wake from lethargy. Zimov is confident that the Earth has genetic memory - it will recall its past and bring back to life the blooming steppe of the Pleistocene era.

Today, the park is populated by about 50 horses, bears, elk and deer. The vegetation is changing before our eyes. The animals have "weeded out" the wild bushes, trampled the soil and fertilized it with dung. In spring, verdurous grass shoots up from the ground, which used to be covered with nothing but moss.

In future, bison, oxen, yaks, wild camels, red wolves, tigers and even scarab beetles will be resettled here. At first, the new inhabitants receive some extra food but those who already live in the park fully provide for themselves and feel quite at home. The appearance of offspring is the best evidence of this.

Recently, the local scientists have put up a five meter-high mast in the center of the park to watch the conduct of animals. "We have installed different devices there to monitor the atmosphere, greenhouse emissions, and so on," Zimov said. He emphasized that the park's creation was not an ambitious end in itself, but a scientific experiment carried out alongside other international research programs related to climate change, the environment and permafrost. In other words, the park is a testing ground.

The local experts are closely studying different soils. Zimov is certain that in the future the region's modern landscapes and ecosystems will be destroyed and people will have to undertake the daunting task of restoring the Nature. Anthropogenic warming is bound to melt underground ice and cause disastrous global erosion. It may have an adverse effect on the park as well.

This abnormal summer has aggravated the current negative trends. For the first time in more than 20 years of the project's existence, Zimov is dubious about the success of the experiment. "I know how to turn the tundra into a Pleistocene park, but I don't know how to do this in a rainforest," Zimov admitted. This summer was very hot. Even the omnipresent mosquitoes disappeared from the tundra. If this trend persists, the experiment may be called into doubt.

"Seasonal in-depth melting will set a record this year. In permafrost, if the ground melts to the depth of one meter, the process becomes irreversible," Zimov explained.

The creation of the world's first Pleistocene Park with a self-sufficient ecosystem is an unprecedented project. The Americans are following the Russian example in the Great Valley Region. Both have a chance to succeed if the global warming does not stop them.