In a rather bold move, scientists in the arctic circle are looking to bring back a species that we pushed to extinction: the woolly mammoth.
Right now, temperatures in the Arctic are heating up at a rate faster than anywhere in the world. Permafrost that has laid dormant for thousands of years is thawing out, releasing carbon into the planet writ large. If the permafrost thaws out completely, it has the potential to release a whopping 1.3 trillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere – more than double the current amount – which would have devastating global ramifications.
But a pioneering team of Siberian scientists believe they have a radical solution to the problem: they want to re-introduce the woolly mammoth, the long-dead ancient beast that roamed the earth 4,000 years ago.
To do this they hope to impregnate an Asian elephant with a frozen mammoth cell, creating a hybrid animal that would have a warm coat for the harsh Arctic climate. Once the mammoth is up and stomping about, they’ll bring it to Siberia, where it will help the landscape be resplendent once more with healthy grass, as part of the steppe habitat.
Other grazing herbivores will remove snow that insulates the permafrost, while the mammoths will knock down tall trees that warm the area. This will ultimately keep Siberia both green and cool, with the permafrost contained.
Their efforts, and those of several other geneticists trying to bring back extinct species, are captured in The Re-Origin of Species, a fascinating book by Swedish journalist Torill Kornfeldt.
Speaking to me on Skype from southern Sweden, Torill admits that the idea of saving the planet by bringing back a long-dead species is not exactly straightforward. For one thing, having a 5,000 kilogram neighbor that likes to tear down trees may be a little confronting for some Siberian residents. And this part of Russia is not exactly the most politically stable part of the world, either.
But conversely, Torill says that the potential of this project should not be underestimated, as it has the ability to prevent rising sea levels and other catastrophic results of increased carbon emissions.
“If this crazy plan works it could have some amazing effects!” she says, laughing.
“I am an optimist and I’m finding myself becoming more and more optimistic in a sort of grudging way,” she says.
To write The Re-Origin of Species, Torill went deep into the obscure laboratories, zoos, and scientific stations that are harboring radical experiments trying to rewrite history. There’s a whole frozen zoo of animals, we learn in the book, just waiting to reclaim their former place in their ecosystems.
For example, American scientist Ben Novak is currently trying to breed back the Passenger Pigeon, which would travel in flocks of hundreds of millions, “darkening the heavens” and “consuming everything in their way.”
And another team of scientists is trying to reintroduce the American chestnut tree to the Eastern states where it once flourished, but with a twist. They have altered the plant’s genetics to include a fungus-resistant strain that will allow it to thrive once more, providing food to squirrels and other animals.
Torill says meeting people who are dedicating their lives to these projects, which are not exactly financially lucrative, was fascinating.
“I am an optimist and I’m finding myself becoming more and more optimistic in a sort of grudging way,” she says. “One of the refreshing things about writing this book was the possibility to meet people who are aware of the scale of the problems and are actively working to solve them.”
Seeing the effects of the thawing permafrost up close in Siberia, for instance, and meeting the people trying to stop this, has evidently had a profound impact on her. She discusses the experience of traversing large swathes of wild terrain that could not accommodate roads because they would be enveloped into the earth. Instead, some of the areas she visited in Siberia were basically mosquito infested mud pits.
“It’s the most extreme thing,” Torill says. “You cover yourself with this almost industrial grade mosquito repellent. You have to be careful that you don’t get any on your sunglasses because it melts plastic.”
In this context, the scientists’ efforts to reintroduce to the steppe ecosystem seem like a noble ambition.
“I went in with a 10-year-old’s enthusiasm … I ended up a lot more confused, in an informed way, but still not certain whether this is a good idea.
And yet, it’s not so simple. The Re-Origin of Species also explores the potential for these experiments to go awry. While geneticists are eagerly embracing these technologies, biologists are not so keen, warning that releasing genetically modified plants and animals into the wild could have untold environmental effects.
And even if the projects were scientifically and environmentally successful, how would humans adapt to these animals, many of which we drove to extinction in the first place?
When I put this to Torill, she recalls the story of the wild boar, which was returned to Sweden in the 1980s from other parts of Europe. While the boars are fulfilling many positive functions in the ecosystem, for farmers their return has not been so welcome.
The wild boars commonly break into fields, ruin crops, and wreak havoc on the roads. Indeed, since the wild boars’ reemergence there has been a sizable increase in reported traffic accidents, Torill says. Problems of this nature could arise from any species brought back to earth.
“You’re relying on humans to fit these new species in and I think that’s one area where there’s going to be conflicts or at least some tension,” Torill says. “I went in with a 10-year-old’s enthusiasm … what I found during the research was that the situation is really, really complex for all of these species … I ended up a lot more confused, in an informed way, but still not certain whether this is a good idea.”
Nonetheless, Torill is also careful to point out that “doing nothing” also comes with a cost, and isn’t it better to at least have an insurance policy for these species?
The idea of bringing back the Northern White Rhino, wiped out recently due to poaching, is particularly appealing to her.
“From an emotional point of view, it would mean so much to see that we can actually fix something,” she says. “We don’t have to sit back and watch the world disintegrate.”