Scientific Background

History of the Mammoth Steppe

During the last Ice Age, high productive grazing ecosystems dominated most of the planet. High animal density, which can now be seen only in a few national parks in Africa (like Serengeti), were on every continent. The largest of all these ecosystems was the Mammoth steppe which spanned from Spain to Canada and from Arctic Islands to China. Millions of mammoths, bison, horses, reindeer, wolves and tigers maintained the grasslands. This ecosystem can exist in a wide variety of climates and was sustained through several glacial/interglacial cycles. However shortly after the end of the last Ice Age, 14500 years ago, humans started their expansion to Northern Eurasia passing through Bering strait and colonizing Americas. Unfortunately the technological development of humans has always outstripped our ability for sustainable land use. Facing millions of animals with no defending strategy against “new predators” people quickly collapsed animal populations. From Europe to Patagonia herbivores declined in numbers with numerous animal species going extinct.

It is hard to believe that primitive humans could kill all big herbivores in the high Siberian Arctic. However declining animal density for an extended period of time was enough for the ecosystem shift. In the Arctic, grasses and herbs cannot compete against slowly growing mosses, evergreen shrubs and larch trees without the help of animals. Herbivores harvest grasses, accelerate biological cycle and physically damage slowly growing plants. With the reduction of animal numbers hay and litter accumulated on the pastures, nutrient turnover slowed down and a few centuries later low-productive vegetation took over. Millions of square kilometers of high productive grasslands with fertile soils disappeared. In the new (modern) environment big herbivores like the Mammoth or Woolly Rhinoceros simply could not find enough forage to survive through the cold winters.

In the perception of most modern people the Arctic is an intact piece of wild nature. However real wild ecosystems there were destroyed by humans over ten thousand years ago. Current animal density in the Arctic is at least one hundred times lower than during the Pleistocene. Modern Arctic ecosystems can maintain limited number of animals and provide very little profit for people.

Our Vision

The idea of Pleistocene Park is to reverse the ecosystem shift which occurred 10 thousand years ago. If declining animal density for an extended period of time allowed grasslands to vanish, then artificially introducing herbivores to the Arctic and maintaining their existence will promote grass establishment and allow reviving of a sustainable high productive ecosystem, similar to Northern Serengeti.

The main difference between modern Arctic ecosystems and grazing ecosystems are the rates of the biological cycle. In the cold Arctic environment decomposition of organic matter is very slow and nutrients used for plant growth are stuck in dead litter for a long time before they can be available for new productivity. In the grazing ecosystems decomposition of organic matter happen in the stomachs of herbivores, and nutrient are quickly returned back to the system. This allows grazing ecosystems to produce much higher harvest and maintain much higher density of animals comparing with any modern Arctic ecosystem.


Restoration of pasture ecosystems in the Arctic can have a cooling effect on the climate

Permafrost carbon preservation

Permafrost is one of the largest carbon reservoirs. With the climate warming permafrost temperature increase and already now in different region in the Arctic recorded local permafrost degradation processes. At that microbes quickly convert formerly frozen organic matter into greenhouse gases. Currently temperature of permafrost is about 5 degree warmer than annual air temperature at the region. Such a difference form because in the winter soil and permafrost are protected from strong Arctic cooling by snow layer. In the grazing ecosystems, animals looking for forage in the winter trample down snow and destroy heat insulating layer. This allows deeper freezing of permafrost and thus protects it from degradation.

Carbon Sequestration

Unlike modern vegetation, grasses form a deep root system. This is essentially the process of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in the form of roots in the cold Arctic soils. Establishment of high productive grasslands on the big territory can be a long term sustainable mechanism for absorption of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In the Arctic soils has a much higher potential to store carbon comparing with above ground biomass (tree stems). Plus carbon in the soil is not subject to forest fires.

Albedo effect

Grassland are lighter than shrublands or larch forest. Lighter surfaces reflect higher portion of sun back to space, keeping surface cooler. This effect is especially pronounced during April/May when sun in the Arctic is already active and dark tree stems absorb sun heat, while pastures are still covered with white snow and reflect most of the energy back to space.

Methane emissions reduction

Modern low productive Arctic vegetation has very slow evapotranspiration; therefore most of the modern arctic soil/surfaces are very moist. High productive grasses in turn dry out soils at that methane – very strong greenhouse gas, is not emitted.

In addition to mitigating climate change, creation of the “Northern Serengeti” will have a strong socio/economical effect on the lives of the local and indigenous people


List of scientific publication since 1993

  1. Zimov S.A., G.M.Zimova , S.P.Daviodov, A.I.Daviodova, Y.V.Voropaev,
    Z.V.Voropaeva, S.F.Prosiannikov, O.V.Prosiannikova, I.V.Semiletova, I.P.Semiletov. Winter biotic activity and production of CO2 in Siberian soils: a factor in the greenhouse effect. Jour. Geophys. Res., 1993, 98, 5017- 5023.
  2. Semiletov I.P., Zimov S.A., Voropaev Yu.V., Daviodov S.P., Barkov N.I., Gusev A.M., Lipenkov V.Ya. (1994) Atmospheric Methane in past and present. Trans, (Doklady) Russ. Acad. Sci. v. 339, n 2, p.253-256.
  3. Zimov, S. A., Chuprynin, V. I., Oreshko, A. P., Chapin III, F. S., Reynolds, J. F., and Chapin, M. C. (1995) Steppe-tundra transition: a herbivore-driven biome shift at the end of the pleistocene. American Naturalist. 146:765-794.
  4. Zimov, S.A., V.I. Chuprynin, A.P. Oreshko, F.S. Chapin, III, M.C. Chapin, and J.F. Reynolds. 1995. Effects of mammals on ecosystem change at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary. Pages 127-135 In: F. S. Chapin, III, and Ch. Körner, eds. Arctic and Alpine Biodiversity: Patterns, Causes and Ecosystem Consequences. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
  5. Chapin, III, S.A. Zimov, G.R. Shaver, and S.E. Hobbie. 1996. CO2 fluctuation at high latitudes. Nature 383: 585-586.
  6. Zimov, S.A., S.P. Davidov, Y.V. Voropaev, S.F. Prosiannikov, I.P. Semiletov, M.C. Chapin, and F.S. Chapin, III. 1996. Siberian CO2 efflux in winter as a CO2 source and cause of seasonality in atmospheric CO2. Climatic Change 33:111-120
  7. Semiletov I.P., Pipko I.I., Pivovarov N.Ya., Popov V.V., Zimov S.A., Voropaev Yu.V., and S.P.Daviodov (1996) Atmospheric carbon emission from North Asian Lakes: a factor of global significance. Atmospheric Environment 30: 1011, p.1657-1671.
  8. Zimov, S.A., Y.V. Voropaev, I.P. Semiletov, S.P. Davidov, S.F. Prosiannikov, F.S. Chapin, III, M.C. Chapin, S. Trumbore, and S. Tyler. 1997. North Siberian lakes: a methane source fueled by Pleistocene carbon. Science 277:800-802.
  9. Zimov, G.M. Zimova, M.C. Chapin, and J.F. Reynolds. 1999. Contribution of disturbance to high-latitude amplification of atmospheric CO 2 . Bull. Ecol. Soc. Amer.
  10. Zimov, S.A., Davidov, S.P., Zimova, G.M., Davidova, A.I., Chapin, F.S., III, Chapin, M.C. and Reynolds, J.F. 1999. Contribution of disturbance to increasing seasonal amplitude of atmospheric CO2. Science 284: 1973-1976.
  11. Chapin, F.S. III., McGuire, A.D., Randerson, J., Pielke, Sr., R., Baldocchi, D., Hobbie, S.E., Roulet, N., Eugster, W., Kasischke, E., Rastetter, E.B., Zimov, S.A., Oechel, W.C., and Running, S.W. 2000. Arctic and boreal ecosystems of western North America as components of the climate system. Global Change Biology 6: S211-S223.
  12. Zimov, S.A., Y.V. Voropaev, S.P. Davydov, G.M. Zimova, A.I. Davydova, F.S. Chapin, III, and M.C. Chapin. 2001. Flux of methane from North Siberian aquatic systems: Influence on atmospheric methane. Pages 511-524 In: R. Paepe and V. Melnikov (Eds.) Permafrost Response on Economic Development, Environmental Security and Natural Resources. Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Hague.
  13. Чупрынин В.И., Зимов С.А., Молчанова Л.А. Моделирование термического режима почвогрунтов с учетом биологического источника тепла// Криосфера Земли. 2001. Т.5. №1. С. 80-87
  14. B. Shapiro, A. Drummond, A. Rambaut, M. Wilson, P. Matheus, A. Sher, O. Pybus, M.
    T. P. Gilbert, I. Barnes, J. Binladen, E. Willerslev, A. Hansen, G. F., Baryshnikov, J. Burns, S. Davydov, J. Driver, D. Froese, C. R., Harington, G. Keddie, P. Kosintsev, M. L. Kunz, L. D. Martin, R., Stephenson, J. Storer, R. Tedford, S. Zimov, A. Cooper. Rise and Fall of the Beringian Steppe Bison. Science, 2004; 306: 1561-1565.
  15. Федоров-Давыдов Д.Г., Давыдов С.П., Давыдова А.И., Зимов С.А., Мергелов Н.С., Остроумов В.Е., Сороковиков В.А., Холодов А.Л., Митрошин И.А.. Пространственно-временные закономерности сезонного протаивания почв на севере Колымской низменности. Криосфера Земли, 2004, т.8, №4, с 15-26.
  16. Fyodorov-Davydov, D., V.Sorokovikov, V.Ostroumov, A.Kholodov, I.Mitroshin, N.Mergelov, S.Davydov, S.Zimov, A.Davydova. Spatial and temporal observations of seasonal thaw in the Northern Kolyma Lowland. Polar Geography. 2004, 28, 4, pp. 308-325
  17. F. Stuart Chapin III, Terry V. Callaghan, Yves Bergeron, M. Fukuda, J. F. Johnstone, G. Juday, and S. A. Zimov. Global Change and the Boreal Forest: Thresholds, Shifting States or Gradual Change? 2004. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment: Vol. 33, No. 6, pp. 361–365.
  18. Zimov S.A. Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth’s Ecosystem// Science, 2005, Vol. 308. P. 796-798.
  19. L. R. Welp, J. T. Randerson, J. C. Finlay, S. P. Davydov, G. M. Zimova, A. I. Davydova, and S. A. Zimov. A high-resolution time series of oxygen isotopes from the Kolyma River: Implications for the seasonal dynamics of discharge and basin-scale water use. Geophysical Research Letters, VOL. 32, L14401, doi:10.1029/2005GL022857, 2005.
  20. C . Corradi, O. Kolle, K. Walter, S. A. Zimov and E.-D. Schulze
    Carbon dioxide and methane exchange of a north-east Siberian tussock tundra.
    Global Change Biology (2005) 11, 1910–1925, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2005.01023.x.
  21. K. M. Walter, S. A. Zimov, J. P. Chanton, D. Verbyla & F. S. Chapin III. 2006. Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming. Nature 443, 71-75(7 September 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature05040.
  22. Sergey A. Zimov, Edward A. G. Schuur, F. Stuart Chapin III. 2006. Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget. Science, Vol. 312, P.1612-1613.
  23. Zimov, S. A., S. P. Davydov, G. M. Zimova, A. I. Davydova, E. A. G. Schuur, K. Dutta, and F. S. Chapin, III (2006), Permafrost carbon: Stock and decomposability of a globally significant carbon pool, Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L20502, doi:10.1029/2006GL027484. 5 p.
  24. Finlay J., J. Neff, S. Zimov, A. Davydova, and S. Davydov. Snowmelt dominance of dissolved organic carbon in high-latitude watersheds: Implications for characterization and flux of river DOC. Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 33, L14401, 2006
  25. Chapin, F. S., III, M. Hoel, S. R. Carpenter, J. Lubchenco, B. Walker, T. V. Callaghan, C. Folke, S. Levin, K.-G. Maler, C. Nilsson, S. Barrett, F. Berkes, A.-S. Crepin, K. Danell, T.Rosswall, D. Starrett, T. Xepapadeas, and S. A. Zimov. Building Resilience and Adaptation to Manage Arctic Change. AMBIO, 2006, Vol.35, No.4, June 2006.P.198-202.
  26. Koushik Dutta, A, E. A. G. Schuur, J. C. Neff and S . A . Zimov. Potential carbon release from permafrost soils of Northeastern Siberia Global Change Biology (2006) Vol. 12, Number 12, P. 2336–2351 , doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2006.01259.x
  27. Neff, J.C., J. Finlay, S.A. Zimov, S. Davydov, J.J. Carrasco, E.A.G. Schuur, A. Davydova. (2006) Seasonal changes in the age and structure of dissolved organic carbon in Siberian Rivers and streams. Geophysical Research Letters. 33(23), L23401, 10.1029/2006GL028222.
  28. K. M. Walter, M. E. Edwards, G. Grosse, S. A. Zimov, F. S. Chapin III (2007)
    Thermokarst Lakes as a Source of Atmospheric CH4 During the Last Deglaciation
    Science, VOL 318. P. 633-636.
  29. D. V. Khvorostyanov,, G. Krinner, P. Ciais, M. Heimann and S. A. Zimov, Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to global warming. Part I: model description and role of heat generated by organic matter decomposition
    (Manuscript received 3 November 2005; in final form 8 November 2007) Tellus (2008) B 15 pages. Tellus (Series B) 60, 250-264.
  30. D. V. Khvorostyanov, P. Ciais, G. Krinner, S. A. Zimov, Ch. Corradi
    and G. Guggenberger, Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to global warming.Part II: sensitivity of permafrost carbon stock to global warming
    (Manuscript received 22 December 2006; in final form 8 November 2007) Tellus (2008) B 11 pages.
  31. Khvorostyanov, D. V., P. Ciais, G. Krinner, and S. A. Zimov (2008), Vulnerability of east Siberia’s frozen carbon stores to future warming, Geophys. Res. Lett., V. 35, Issue 10, L10703, doi:10.1029/2008GL033639 20 May 2008
  32. K. M. Walter, J. P. Chanton, F. S. Chapin III, E. A. G. Schuur, S. A. Zimov. 2008. Methane production and bubble emissions from arctic lakes: Isotopic implications for source pathways and ages J. Geophys. Res., 113, G00A08, doi:10.1029/2007JG000569
  33. Schuur, E.A.G, J. Bockheim, J. Canadell, E. Euschkirchen, C. Field, S. Goryachkin, S. Hagemann, P.
    Kuhry, P. Lafleur, H. Lee, G. Mazhitova, F. Nelson, A. Rinke, V. Romanovsky, N.
    Shiklomanov, C. Tarnocai, S. Venevsky, J. G. Vogel, S.A. Zimov The vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: implications for the global carbon cycle. BioScience
    September 2008, Vol.58, No 8. P. 701-714.
  34. McClelland, J. W., R. M. Holmes, B. J. Peterson, R. Amon, T. Brabets, L. Cooper, J. Gibson, V. V. Gordeev, C. Guay, D. Milburn, R. Staples, P. A. Raymond, I. Shiklomanov, R. Striegl, A. Zhulidov, T. Gurtovaya, and S. Zimov. 2008. Development of a pan-Arctic database for river chemistry.
    EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 89:217-218.
  35. Guido Grosse, Vladimir Romanovsky, Katey Walter, Anne Morgenstern, Hugues Lantuit, Sergei Zimov. Thermokarst Lakes: High-Resolution Distribution and Temporal Changes at Three Yedoma Sites in Siberia. Proceedings of NINTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON PERMAFROST, P.551-556.
  36. Khalil, M. A. K., M. A. K. Khalil, C. L. Butenhoff, S. Zimov, K. M. Walter, J. M. Melack (2009), Correction to “Global methane emissions from wetlands, rice paddies, and lakes”, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(11), 92, 10.1029/2009EO110019.
  37. Zhuang, Q., J. M. Melack, S. Zimov, K. M. Walter, C. L. Butenhoff, and M. A. K. Khalil (2009), Global Methane Emissions From Wetlands, Rice Paddies, and Lakes, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(5), doi:10.1029/2009EO050001.
  38. Q. Zhuang, J. M. Melack, S. Zimov, K. M. Walter, C. L. Butenhoff, and M. A. K. Khalil
    Global Methane Emissions From Wetlands, Rice Paddies, and Lakes. Eos, Vol. 90, No. 5, 3 February 2009. P. 37-38.
  39. Zimov N. S., S. A. Zimov, A. E. Zimova, G. M. Zimova, V. I. Chuprynin, and F. S. Chapin III (2009), Carbon storage in permafrost and soils of the mammoth tundra-steppe biome: Role in the global carbon budget, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L02502, doi:10.1029/2008GL036332.
    1. Zimov S., Implications of Ancient Ice. Science, 6 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5915, pp. 714 – 715.
  40. Tarnocai, C., J. G. Canadell, E.A.G. Schuur, P. Kuhry, G. Mazhitova, and S. Zimov (2009), Soil Organic Carbon Pools in the Northern Circumpolar Permafrost Region,Global Biogeochem. Cycles, Vol. 23, No. 2. (27 June 2009), GB2023.
  41. Levin, I., Naegler, T., Heinz, R., Osusko, D., Cuevas, E., Engel, A., Ilmberger, J., Langenfelds, R. L., Neininger, B., Rohden, C. v., Steele, L. P., Weller, R., Worthy, D. E., and Zimov, S. A.: Atmospheric observation-based global SF6 emissions – comparison of top-down and bottom-up estimates, Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., 9, 26653-26672, 2009.
  42. Merbold L, Kutsch W.L., Corradi C., Kolle O., Rebmann C., Stoy P.C., Zimov Z.A. and Schulze E.-D. Artificial drainage and associated carbon fluxes (CO2/CH4) in a tundra ecosystem (2009) Global Change Biology, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2426.2009.01962.x