Pleistocene Park

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Restoring grassland ecosystems in the arctic to mitigate climate change.

Rewilding the Ancient Arctic

Planting trees and shrubs isn’t always the answer. Take the arctic: reforestation will not save the arctic. Instead, removing trees and restoring grass-dominated tundra may be the answer, and all we need to do is return the absent megafauna and watch the ecosystem shift under their influence.

GRASSLANDS, not forests. Pass it on.

Wait, WHAT are we talking about? Let’s back up.

The concept behind Pleistocene Park is deceptively simple: rewild the Pleistocene Siberian arctic. To do this (according to the scientists working on these questions), release megafauna that match ancient ecosystem roles, roles that have been vacant for 10,000 years. These animals shape the environment, and, like all grasslands when pushed with their favorite disturbance, this steppe ecosystem responds.

Pleistocene Park

The fenced 20 sq kilometers of Pleistocene Park in remote Yakutia, Russia, maintains 9 major herbivore species: reindeer, Yakutian horse, moose, bison, musk ox, yak, Kalmykian cow, sheep, and (very recently) Bactrian camels.

Why put time, effort, and resources into this experimental rewilding project? 

The answer is in the paleoscience, and it all has to do with climate change.

The Mammoth Steppe

Ukok Plateau, one of the last remnants of the mammoth steppe. Photo by Kobsev at Russian Wikipedia.

Why put time, effort, and resources into this experimental rewilding project? 

The answer is in the paleoscience, and it all has to do with climate change.

The Science

The scientific work behind the park is what makes this endeavor extraordinary. The idea sounds whimsically theoretical, until you dive into the work that Nikita Zimov and others have done reconstructing the paleoscience behind it.

The best way to learn, imo, is to watch Nikita himself speak about his work. In the webinar below (2018), Nikita spends about an hour speaking extensively about his research in the Siberian arctic, in addition to building the park itself and the studying the impacts on the park grounds.

Mammoth steppe: a high-productivity phenomenon (2012)

Protection of Permafrost Soils from Thawing by Increasing Herbivore Density (2020)

This more recent work is paywalled, but Sci-Hub has our back. The images and figures, many of which Nikita uses in his webinar, are incredibly valuable. 

The Full Text


Fig. 15. Horses, bison and musk-ox inhabit Pleistocene Park. There are also three species of deer. This represents the highest diversity this area has seen in the last 12,000 years.
Fig. 16. Part of the Duvanniy Yar exposure. The soils (yedoma) are fertile, so even though it’s a cold northern-faced slope, highly productive grasses appear in locations of permafrost erosion. In this part of the exposure, grasses prevent erosion through root reinforcement of the soil. In conditions of cold and dry climate with herbivores absent, thermally insulating litter accumulates on the surface, fertility declines, and in several years grass productivity also declines. If herbivores appear on the site they maintain meadow productivity and also decrease permafrost thawing.

Arctic Climate Change

Photo by Raimond Klavins Kailash, Буранг, Нгари, Китай

Permafrost Preservation

Carbon Sequestration

Methane Emissions Reduction

The Best Biome: a podcast for grassland lovers

Sources/Further Reading:

  1. Zimov, S. A., Zimov, N. S., Tikhonov, A. N., & Chapin, F. S. (2012). Mammoth steppe: a high-productivity phenomenon. Quaternary Science Reviews, 57, 26–45.

  2. Beer, C., Zimov, N., Olofsson, J. et al. Protection of Permafrost Soils from Thawing by Increasing Herbivore Density. Sci Rep 10, 4170 (2020).

  3. Zimov, N. Pleistocene Park.

  4. Walter, K. M., Zimov, S. A., Chanton, J. P., Verbyla, D., & Chapin, F. S. (2006). Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming. Nature, 443(7107), 71–75.

Did you spot an error or have questions about this post? Email Rachel Roth.

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