When many of us think of the woolly mammoth, I’m guessing we think of Queen Latifah, or at least the voice she gave to Ellie the woolly mammoth in the “Ice Age” movie franchise. For the record, the ice age ended about 11,000 years ago, and so did Ellie and her mate, Manny.
A report on “60 Minutes” this past Sunday told of Russian geophysicist Sergey Zimov, who for decades has posited that we humans would melt the Arctic permafrost, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all the human industries. Turns out, he was right, though human industries are a significant part of why the permafrost has become so impermanent.
During the Ice Age, Siberia was home to bison, horses and especially woolly mammoths that helped create what became called “permafrost” – permanently frozen ground. Woolly mammoths, in herds estimated to have been as many as 20 critters strong, wandered back and forth, packing the ground beneath their feet. As the ground froze, it locked up tons upon tons of carbon that grasses and other plants that had removed from the air.
Zimov said the herds of 12,000-pound animals were largely responsible for the deeply frozen ground. As they ate the grass, they wandered the landscape – the weight of a small cargo truck riding on each foot – trampling the grass and packing the ground like walking vibrators pack pavement applied over potholes.
Then humans showed up, our ancestors from all those generations back. Species tend to take one of two paths: either they do not adapt, and they die, or they evolve to become the demise of populations occupying territories into which they expand. Europeans did it to the American Indians.
And humans did it to Siberian mammoths.
When I lived with a septic system, a cardinal rule was that one did not drive over the system’s piping. The vehicles’ weight would pack the ground, and every time one passed by, the ground would pack a little deeper. In winter, the denser dirt would freeze more solid than the surrounding ground. If the dirt was packed over the septic field, the liquid meant to drain off also would freeze. Some people learned that the hard way, and paid to have someone dig into six feet of frozen ground when the ground away from the vehicle tracks was frozen only two to three feet deep.
Another place to see the effect is in paved driveways, where simply parking our vehicles on supposedly solid pavement can create ruts. Most of us have driven on interstate highways where cars and trucks have beaten ruts deeply enough into the pavement you could let go of the steering wheel and stay in line all the way to Columbus.
And with the animals gone, and trees holding heat next to the ground, and human industries adding to the blanket of carbon dioxide warming the surface – it’s a cycle we may not have a lot of time to break. Zimov would like to begin cloning mammoths and bison to populate the Siberian tundra.
It’s kind of funny how things we didn’t pay much attention to when we were young turn out to be valuable lessons as we become older, like the effects of driving over the septic field when relatively few of us still have septic fields.
Zimov suggests populating Pleistocene Park – a research center of crushed trees and expanded grassland he has created to replicate the Ice Age – eventually with mammoths cloned from 11,000-year-old DNA – Ellie and Manny, without Latifah and Romano to speak for them.
Move over, Jurassic Park.
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