Sunday, December 05, 2010

Russian Scientist Sergei Zimov Discusses His Idea for Tackling Global Warming

"Imagine a picture in which someone from the neighboring tribe teaches you to make new ... weapons such as spears," Zimov said.

"Now you kill the first animal. Will you carefully prepare and consume all the meat, surrounded as you are by clouds of mosquitoes? Or will you just cut out the tongue, knowing that there are millions more [animals]?

"Over time, people probably understood that they should take care of the animals, but by then it was too late," he added.---National Geographic (5-17-05)

The AP (11-27-10) has an interesting article about a Russian scientist named Sergei Zimov (Wikipedia), who runs a special zoopark called Плейстоценовый парк (Google search).

Here is a Russian article about Pleistocene Park titled "Pleistocene Park: Could It Be a Good Place for Tigers?" (11-24-10). Here is Wikipedia's entry on Pleistocene Park. There are many articles about Sergei Zimov in Russian such as a facinating article titled "Home for Mamoths" (10-27-10).

Sergei Zimov (or google Сергей Зимов) is very concerned about global warming and the release of methane gas from Russia's thawing permafrost, but he has a theory about how to tackle this problem: He wants to reintroduce grassland animals into the permafrost.

Most scientists who study global warming argue that the real global warming culprit is carbon dioxide, not methane; still, this article shows that a Russian scientist accepts the science of global warming. To me, his experiment sounds very ambitious.

Dr. Zomov's idea is called Pleistocene Rewilding. A few years ago, National Geographic (5-17-05) published an article titled "Pleistocene Park Underway: Home for Reborn Mammoths?"

National Geographic (5-17-05) reports:

During the last ice age northeastern Siberia remained a grassy refuge for scores of animals, including bison and woolly mammoths. Then, about 10,000 years ago, this vast ecosystem disappeared as the Ice Age ended.

Now, though, the Ice Age landscape is on its way back, with a little help from the Russian scientists who have established "Pleistocene Park."

The scientists hope to uncover what killed off the woolly mammoth (see photo) and other Ice Age animals. To do so, they're restoring the prehistoric ecosystem once found in what is now the remote Sakha region of eastern Russia.

The land is slowly being turned into willow savanna, as it was 10,000 years ago. Dozens of wild horses are already grazing in the refuge, and there are plans to import bison and musk oxen.

Most spectacularly, the wildlife park may one day become home to a genetic hybrid of the extinct woolly mammoth and the modern-day elephant. But the park probably will not see its most majestic potential inhabitant for several decades, if ever.

Japanese scientists, working with Russians, have for years been searching for mammoth carcasses to use for reviving woolly mammoths, which would then be introduced into Pleistocene Park...

Sergey Zimov, who is not involved in the mammoth-recreation effort, initiated the project to restore the Pleistocene ecosystem in 1989. He hopes to test the theory that hunting, not climate change, wiped out the animals that once thrived in northern Siberia...

During the driest periods of the Pleistocene, which lasted from about 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, the vegetation was mainly low grass.

During warmer periods the land turned into meadows and steppes, ideal grazing grounds for woolly mammoths, rhinoceroses, bison, horses, elk, and yaks. Among the predators were cave lions and wolves.

When this vast ecosystem disappeared 10,000 years ago, the land turned into mossy tundra. The only plant eaters to survive were reindeer that grazed on lichens and moose that fed on willows.

The cause of the extinctions of large animals such as woolly mammoths has been a topic of great debate. Many scientists argue that the sudden shift to a warmer and moister climate proved catastrophic to the steppe vegetation and the animals that thrived on it.

"I'm completely on the side of natural, environmental causes of extinction," said Andrei Sher, a well-known paleontologist at Moscow's A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution [See Severtsov Institute].

Skilled Hunters?

Zimov, however, believes that humans, using increasingly efficient hunting practices, killed off the woolly mammoths and the other large animals.

But could a small population of hunters kill millions of animals?

"Imagine a picture in which someone from the neighboring tribe teaches you to make new ... weapons" such as spears, Zimov said.

"Now you kill the first animal. Will you carefully prepare and consume all the meat, surrounded as you are by clouds of mosquitoes? Or will you just cut out the tongue, knowing that there are millions more [animals]?

"Over time, people probably understood that they should take care of the animals, but by then it was too late," he added.

By reintroducing the Pleistocene animals, Zimov says scientists may be able to determine what role the animals played in maintaining their own habitat.

Researchers may also better understand the forces that vanquished the Ice Age ecosystem.

While much of the Siberian tundra is now covered with moss, the 160 square kilometers (62 square miles) designated for the park is an even split of meadow, larch forest, and willow shrubland.

"All plants that were there in the Pleistocene epoch are preserved there today," Zimov said.

The park will eventually be cordoned off, though it will remain open to adventurous tourists who can get to such a remote location, which is accessible only by helicopter...

Zimov says he hopes to increase the density of plant eaters sufficiently to influence the vegetation and soil in the park and stabilize its grasslands. Once herbivore populations have been established, the plan is to acclimatize Siberian tigers, predators whose modern survival is threatened by poaching. [Read the full text.]

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