Nikita Zimov walked through the sticky brown muck of Siberia, just above the Arctic Circle. The sun radiated over the Russian republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutia, on a nearly 70 degree day. It was August of 2022, but in many ways the young scientist had traveled back in time thousands of years.
Layers of thawing ground towered dozens of feet above Zimov, the manager of Pleistocene Park and head of the Northeast Science Station in Yakutia. They contained leaves, roots and the remains of animals that died millennia ago, during the Pleistocene period, known as the planet’s most recent Ice Age.
Siberia is heating up around twice as quickly as other parts of the world. The rapid change is causing the frozen ground known as permafrost that coats about two-thirds of Russia to thaw for the first time in ages.
BOTTOM: Scientists have introduced major herbivores to the Pleistocene Park, so they can eat weeds and shrubs in the summer and remove thick layers of insulating snow in the winter to prevent permafrost from melting.
Its brittle underbrush has fueled vicious forest fires. The melting ground is releasing greenhouse gases. Sheets of the softening land have emerged for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, revealing skeletons, disease and awakening life.
Zimov lives 26 miles from the park in a remote location with his wife and three daughters.
“It has tons of mosquitoes in the summer, and it’s super dark and cold in the winter,” he said. “But home is home.”
Zimov grew up on the research station, where his father, Sergey, was a scientist. In 2006, Sergei and Alaskan ecologist Katey Walter Anthony published research in Nature detailing how the permafrost’s thaw was adding to climate change. The Zimovs decided to address the problem by “re-wilding” the arctic tundra. Their small patch of land is inhabited by cold-weather grazers such as bison and camels, which they hope can flatten and spread out the insulating snow during the winter, allowing the ground to refreeze before the summer months.
Time is running out. The melting ground is changing daily life in these remote locations. Infrastructure is collapsing. Homes are crumbling. Graveyards are flooding.
He hopes that in the next 25 years, the park will be free of human interference. “The goal of our work is to create a self-sustaining system,” he said. But the daunting aspects of the mission are not lost on him.
“The main criticism of our project is that it’s too much of a task, and there is just not enough time,” he said. “Maybe yes, it is too hard of task. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying.”
Those who live in Siberia’s extreme conditions draw from centuries-old customs crafted for honoring and surviving the cold. Pipes are built above ground. Cars are left running all winter because if they are turned off, they immediately freeze and cannot be restarted.
People dress in fur from head to toe so that they can live in the freezing temperatures. It’s a matter of survival, but it’s also a way of life that is now in danger.