Could horses save the Arctic permafrost?

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

Seeking ways to combat the thawing of permafrost soils in the Arctic, German scientists have rather counterintuitively shown that resettling massive herds of large herbivores could do the trick.

They were inspired by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov who resettled herds of horses, bison and reindeer in Pleistocene Park in the icy Siberian locality of Chersky 20 years ago and has been monitoring the impact on the soil.

The long-term experiments showed that resettling 100 animals halved the average snow cover height, which effectively reduces the amount of insulation it provides, intensifying the freezing of the permafrost. {%recommended 5189%}

Christian Beer, Earth system expert from the University of Hamburg, and colleagues thought this might offer hope for thawing permafrost soils in the Arctic, which could release large amounts of greenhouse gases and accelerate climate change. 

As described in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, they used a climate model to simulate such temperature processes on the land surface over a full year.

Results showed that if emissions continue to rise unchecked, permafrost temperatures would likely increase by 3.8 degrees Celsius, which would cause half of it to thaw.

However, with animal herds the ground would only warm by around 2.1 degrees – 44 percent less, which the model showed would be enough to preserve 80 percent of the current soils.

“It may be utopian to imaging resettling wild animal herds in all the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere,” Beer says. “But the results indicate that using fewer animals would still produce a cooling effect.

“What we’ve shown here is a promising method for slowing the loss of our permanently frozen soils, and with it, the decomposition and release of the enormous carbon stockpiles they contain.”

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