A Soviet scientist once described Siberia’s permafrost as a “Russian Sphinx”, says Joshua Yaffa in The New Yorker: “inexplicable, alluring, a riddle to be solved”. Thanks to climate change, this frozen ground is starting to melt – releasing all manner of long-buried mysteries. When scientists defrosted a 24,000-year-old “wormlike invertebrate” in 2015, it began crawling around, fully functional. In 2013, the carcass of a mammoth frozen millennia ago started to bleed after being dug up.
Permafrost, which can be up to nearly a mile deep, also carries great danger. A 2016 heatwave in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula led to long-dormant anthrax being released from the thawing ground, killing more than 2,500 reindeer and a 12-year-old boy. In 2020 a commercial fuel storage tank cracked open, spilling 21,000 tons of diesel, because the melting ground had destroyed its foundations. As temperatures continue to rise, the permafrost will release vast reserves of methane and carbon – twice as much of the latter is stored there than is currently floating in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Little can be done to stop this frozen ground thawing. But some scientists are pushing for Russia’s vast tundra to be repopulated with large herbivores like camels, which used to roam the steppe. These animals would churn up the soil, meaning that brown shrubs would be replaced by grassland. Pale grass reflects heat better than darker vegetation – potentially keeping those “vast stretches” of frozen soil from giving up any more unwelcome secrets.
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