By Arden Benner
The American Geographical Society has a long history with the Arctic. Our conception centralized around the rescue of Sir John Franklin, an Arctic explorer who disappeared in 1851 (we were unsuccessful). Since then the AGS has contributed immeasurable time and resources toward the understanding and development of our world. We have continued to expand both our reach and areas of expertise—into transportation, education, and government, among others—though we still hold the polar regions close to our hearts.
For that reason, we have been taking great interest in the work of Christian Beer at the University of Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN). As our global climate continues to change, the polar regions are some of the most drastically affected. Beer’s team is focused on the subsurface layer of permafrost buried deep under what is sometimes several meters of snowfall. Before the end of the last ice-age, this layer soil became infused with enormous quantities of atmospheric carbon, and for thousands of years continued to build until it became what we now call the “permafrost.” Now, however, warmer than usual summer months are causing a thaw, and deep winter snowfall only insulates the warmer soil. As it continues to bake throughout the year, ancient methane and carbon dioxide are released back into the atmosphere, effectively creating a climate feedback loop.
What caught Beer and the rest of the world’s attention (after an appearance on 60 Minutes) was the research of father-son duo, Russian geneticist Sergey Zimov, and his son, Nikita. Sergey founded Pleistocene Park in Siberia over twenty years ago. The park, named after the age popularly known for its Wooley Mammoths, endeavors to “restore high productive grazing ecosystems in the Arctic and mitigate climate change,” effectively returning the landscape to how it would have been during the late Pleistocene Era. As the park’s animals (reindeer, Yakutain horse, moose, bison, musk ox, yak, Kalmykian cow, and sheep) graze in across their twenty-square-kilometres of terrain, the snow they walk through is scattered, depleting coverage and exposing the permafrost (10 degrees Celsius) beneath to the much colder air (minus forty degrees Celsius) above. Beer’s team has been studying the park’s phenomena and has created a computer simulation to replicate the experiment on a much larger scale (i.e. the entirety of the Arctic).
The results of the simulation show that if the emissions are allowed to continue unhindered, permafrost temperatures could rise by seven degrees Fahrenheit, and by 2100, at least half of the permafrost would thaw. If herds were released onto the tundra, however, their activity could limit the temperature rise to only four degrees Fahrenheit, preserving eighty percent of the permafrost through 2100. While speaking to CBS News, Beer was asked how “realistic” repopulating the Arctic with hoofed herbivores was. He responded, “I am not sure. Today we have an average of 5 reindeer per square kilometer across the Arctic. With 15 [reindeer] per square kilometre we could already save 70 percent permafrost according to our calculations.” He continued on to say that even by introducing less animals, cooling would still happen. He and his team are now examining the side effects of introducing a dense population of animals on the region, and are planning on collaborating with biologists in order to investigate how the spread would occur.