Extinction rates are at their highest rates for 65 million years. Over ten percent of the Earth’s remaining wilderness has been destroyed in the last 25 years. There were over 50 wildfires inside the Arctic Circle this summer.
One fantastic weapon in our arsenal yet to be truly deployed in the lacklustre fight against climate change is rewilding. An often ignored area when it comes to talking about climate change is the vast taiga that stretches across the breadth of Russia, the single largest area of relatively undisturbed wilderness left on the planet.
Whilst the quantity of CO2 stored within environments such as the Arctic permafrost or the Amazon rainforest is poorly understood, it’s estimated that the Arctic permafrost contains 1672Pg.1 For context, this is about twice the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere since pre-industrial levels, or about eight times the CO2 stored within the Earth’s tropical rainforests.2
With such a dangerous quantity of CO2 currently trapped, preservation of this permafrost should clearly be a pressing issue. Once it starts melting, there is a very real concern that it will result in a positive feedback loop. Runaway melting could begin once we reach 1.5ᵒC.
So why mammoths? Mammoths were some of the most influential bioengineers ever to exist - they maintained a vast steppe across the full breadth of Eurasia, over the Bering land bridge and on into Canada.
Through grazing and trampling down of the trees that currently cover much of this terrain, mammoths and other similar massive herbivores could cause the grasslands that previously flourished to come back in force. These grasslands cause the Arctic soil to absorb less heat through the Albedo effect: they reflect more sunlight than the trees and scrub they would be replacing.
Studies are ongoing within the Pleistocene Park, a 16 square kilometre nature reserve in eastern Siberia. Large herbivores such as bison, yak, wild horses and elk have been released, and their impact on the local fauna is being measured. Preliminary findings show the tundra being converted into a significantly more productive grassland biome, with some soils showing cooling of up to 25ᵒC. 3 This drastic drop in temperature is due to the insulating layer of snow being trampled down, compounded by the change in insulating properties of grass over trees and scrub.
Whilst the return of the mammoth steppe would probably be possible without mammoths, the impact that they can have truly cannot be understated. Such massive beasts uproot trees with an almost casual ease, freeing up the space necessary for the grasslands to steadily expand their reach. Hardy enough to withstand temperatures far surpassing what we can operate in easily, they could carry the work we begin far further north.
This is by no means to say that de-extinction of mammoths would stop climate change in its tracks - no, it would simply be another small step in a far larger solution. There are also ethical complications centred around de-extinction, but this would not simply be a vanity project to show that we are the masters of life on earth. No, this would be us reviving a species in admittance that we are not the masters of the planet, and there are places that mammoths can have an impact on a scale that we just cannot.
Sometimes, mammoth problems require mammoth solutions.