For the better part of a century-plus, explorers, paleontologists and treasure hunters have pulled Ice Age fauna from the Siberian permafrost. Concurrent to the exploration and exploitation of ancient skeletons, science looks to examine the same melting earth and resulting release of organic carbon and methane. A simple indicator of the rapidity of melting permafrost comes from the boom in mammoth ivory.
Since the late 19th century, extinct Ice Age creatures like wooly rhinos and mammoths have slowly risen from the Siberian landscape. They do not emerge as zombies; instead, their earthen graves slowly erode and shift to reveal often-intact bodies. However, natural erosion has played a lesser role in the broader, more profound landscape changes attributed to anthropogenic climate change.
Made up of layers of organic material, permafrost is year-round frozen soil that reaches two hundred plus feet in some parts of the northern hemisphere. Stuck in a frozen state, the permafrost confines plant and microbial activity until rising temperatures unlock the microbial decomposition process. The resulting release of organic carbon and methane escapes into the atmosphere. As the climate warms, permafrost in Siberia and beyond begins to thaw centuries of organic material embedded within, including Ice Age animals.
Climate change is not necessarily how humans first discovered the lost mammals of Siberia. Natural erosion of riverbanks, in particular, produced some of the first fossils finds in Siberia. As early as the 17th and 18th centuries, humans began to discover what Siberia’s landscape was giving up. Woolly mammoth skeletons emerged from the frozen earth, in pieces, and with some excavation, fully. While discoveries continued throughout the 20th century, the unearthing of an intact mammoth calf caused a stir in the 1970s. Found on a former gulag island in Soviet Siberia, ‘Dima’ was a sensation that transcended paleontology and reached into the public’s consciousness. Since that time, numerous intact woolly species of mammoth and rhinoceros have emerged from the permafrost. However, as human industry began to alter climate processes, there came the realization that with the warming came a profit.
Each year tons of mammoth ivory, scoured and dug from the permafrost, is destined for China. According to the BBC’s Science Focus, some 60 plus tons of mammoth ivory are sent to the voracious Chinese market each year. As of 2019, the Siberian mammoth ivory market was estimated to be worth $53 million annually, with prospectors finding between 70 and 100 tons in recent years. The lucrative endeavor often requires prospectors to scour away receding riverbanks to pull out the preserved ivory and skeletons. Equipped with motorboats, pumps, and high-pressure water hoses, Siberia’s mammoth prospectors have an ally that makes the bonanza possible – climate change.
Recently, Siberia experienced its highest recorded summer temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Like much of the Arctic region, Siberia’s average 50-year temperature rose twice that of the rest of the globe. The high latitude temperature increases are attributed to diminished year-round polar ice. The white sheets which top the planet reflect solar radiation into space via the albedo effect. However, as the ice cap shrinks and darker and less reflective areas are revealed, the polar region warms more quickly. The resulting temperature growth has begun to work its way deeper into the permafrost. Of concern for scientists is the release of methane captured within the frozen earth. Where carbon dioxide is the well-known culprit in climate change, methane is a potentially more impactful greenhouse gas. According to the United Nations, over 100 years, methane is estimated to have 34 times more impact on the Earth’s environment than carbon dioxide.
Even as ivory prospectors reap the benefits of Siberia’s thaw, science too gets chances to examine Ice Age fauna exposed by the melting soil. In recent years Siberia has revealed remarkably integral juvenile wooly rhinos, an 18,000-year-old canine puppy, and a complete Ice Age brown bear, giving scientists unique opportunities to understand the diets, lives, and deaths of the extinct mammals. As for what the mammoth prospectors have yet to find, one suggests there maybe 500,000 tons of undiscovered Ice Age ivory hidden in the permafrost, whose melting is hastened by the human hand.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Jan. 20, 2021.