A mammoth task: restoring an Ice-Age ecosystem to save the planet

Climate change has never been more relevant. In the quest for solutions, one project in Siberia seeks to restore the mammoth steppe, a vast grassland ecosystem that once stretched from Alaska to Europe. This mammoth-sized plan could halt permafrost melt and stop the ticking time bomb of greenhouse gases stored within. The best part? It’s all natural. Welcome to Pleistocene Park!

In this interview we speak to Nikita Zimov, director of Pleistocene Park. Founded in 1988 by Nikita’s father, Sergey, the park investigates if steppes cool the climate. In other words, did steppe animals put the ice in the Ice Age?

What’s the science behind Pleistocene Park? How does it work?

50,000 years ago, the mammoth steppe dominated Eurasia. It was an Arctic Serengeti, teeming with bison, horses, mammoths, rhinos, reindeer, wolves and even lions! Once humans arrived they hunted so many grazers that shrubs and trees replaced the steppe. This reduced ecosystem productivity. In a self-reinforcing cycle, the mammoth steppe went extinct.

Bison, a recent arrival at the Park, were once one of the most common steppe herbivores.

Why restore this high-productivity habitat? If it shaped the world’s climate in the past, it could do so in the future. There are a few ways this happens:

Firstly, the Albedo effect. Light surfaces, like snow-covered steppes, reflect more light back into space than dark forests. Steppes absorb less solar energy, slowing the warming of our planet.

Secondly, the modern forests form shallow root systems. All organic matter is in the top 20cm of soil. Grasses grow a bigger root system, pulling carbon into the soil, where it’s there to stay and safe from fires. We could store up to 50 times more carbon in steppe soil than in local forests!

Thirdly, steppe permafrost stores a LOT of carbon. If the climate warms by another 3 degrees, it will start thawing. In a best case scenario it will release another USA’s worth of greenhouse gases. Grazers compact the snow when searching for grass to eat. This thinner, denser layer of snow exposes the ground to cold Arctic winds, rather than thick snow insulating it like an igloo. We can cool the permafrost by another 2-3 degrees this way.

Nikita in one of the permafrost caves found in Yakutia.

Finally, the modern Arctic is very wet. Our state of Yakutia has more lakes than people! The plants use little water and the permafrost drains poorly. Restoring steppes would dry the soil and reduce methane production, a potent greenhouse gas. It may sound like blasphemy, but in the Arctic trees aren’t good for the climate!

Thawing permafrost in Yakutia.

What impact have you seen in Pleistocene Park so far?

We’re still converting to productive pastures with a high enough herbivore density. According to estimates from a few years ago, we had on average 4kg more carbon per m2 of soil – quite a big increase! The efforts of a few people can help us go carbon negative – my footprint is -1000 tonnes!

What are your main roles at the moment?

I’m responsible for two things. I run the Northeast Science Station, a big international polar research station visited by over 100 scientists every year. I also manage Pleistocene Park – all the planning, activities for our animals and looking for ways to improve. Pleistocene Park is like our hobby – we make money and throw it at trying to restore the mammoth steppe. I’ll consider myself successful when the ecosystem doesn’t need us anymore to survive.

What are your favourite things about directing the Park and what are you most proud of?

The satisfaction that you’re doing something meaningful. Our main achievements are building up our support and outreach. I’m also proud we finally brought bison to the park. It only took 20 years of unsuccessful attempts! We tried sourcing them from Alaska, but we couldn’t find a plane within budget. In the 90’s my dad negotiated with the Canadian government for bison, but then our own government decided they would go to another reserve! We’re trying to get some from there. Our current bison are from Denmark – 35 days of driving!

The team’s truck carrying bison on their mammoth journey from Denmark to Siberia.

What are your biggest challenges?

The biggest failure in Pleistocene Park history happened in 2020. We were preparing an expedition to Wrangel Island to get musk ox for over half a year. First, I had to get permission from a mountain of officials. I then had to fly somewhere else and drive a boat all the way back to base. By the time we left it was too deep into Autumn and we had to turn back. Our new plan is to source some from the Yamal Peninsula in March 2021.

A joint photo of some of the members of the 2020 failed musk ox expedition. From left to right: Sergey Zimov, Nikita Zimov, Taras Sipko.

How do you get most of your funding and support?

It’s mainly our personal funds from the research station going into the park. We also have some cross-funding organisations and recently made a Patreon page. Some companies are kindly supporting us with some of their profits.

What are your main plans for the future?

Research! Not only on animals, but what plants to reintroduce as well. Recently we’ve been getting projects and grant applications for research at Pleistocene Park itself!

Bringing in animals is easy – they must then adapt to the conditions. Our main goal is growing enough forage. Once they convert the ecosystem into a proper steppe with nice rich grass our job will be much easier.

It may surprise you, but cold isn’t the animals’ biggest issue. Below 40°C our cattle need shelter to keep warm. Despite having Danish bison (tropical compared to Siberia) they never entered their shelters even below 40°C!

Yakutian horses at the Park grow a thick coat to withstand harsh winters reaching -50°C!

Yakutian horses at the Park grow a thick coat to withstand harsh winters reaching -50°C!

Can you tell us about your sister site, Wild Field?

Stallions at Wild Field, Pleistocene Park’s sister site near Moscow.

It’s one of my Dad’s hobbies. There’s no permafrost down south, but the site exists to show that high productivity, self-sustaining grazing ecosystems are possible in Eurasia.

Are you ready to learn more? Check out Pleistocene Park’s website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram to find out more about their inspirational work. You can also check out an interview with Nikita on BBC Radio!

Make sure to share this interview and consider visiting Pleistocene Park’s Patreon to support their mission to rewild the Arctic, restore an Ice-Age ecosystem and fight against climate change!


Author profile | Jamie Bolam

Jamie is a Biological Sciences student at the University of Exeter. He has a passion for the natural world and finding the most effective ways to help it. When he’s not scrambling down cliffs looking for bats, studying turtles or trapping moths, he’s learning about anything and everything to prepare for an impactful life in conservation. In his spare time, you’ll find him out in nature, learning languages, playing guitar and blasting country music! You can find out more about Jamie on LinkedIn.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Scientist, Climate Change, Restoration & Rewilding, Wildlife