Thousands of years ago, woolly mammoths once roamed the Arctic. Now, some scientists believe their DNA could be the key to preventing the Arctic tundra from releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gasses stored below the surface. It may sound like a Hollywood plotline, but this is no movie.
The Arctic is covered by areas of permafrost, soil that’s been permanently frozen since the Pleistocene Era — until recently. As climate change intensifies, the permafrost has begun to thaw. This thawing could release prehistoric stows of carbon dioxide frozen below — an amount estimated to be twice as much as we have in the atmosphere now.
This is where woolly mammoths come in. During the Pleistocene Era, these furry herbivores acted as natural geoengineers in two main ways:
- They continuously trampled moss, shrubs and uprooted trees, creating an ecosystem full of grass and no trees. Grass absorbs less sunlight than trees, keeping the ground temperature cooler and therefore preventing the carbon dioxide beneath from being released.
- The daily travels of the 6-ton giants through the cleared terrain served to pack down snow above the soil, insolating the frozen ground below to help maintain the permafrost.
So how does this help us now? The idea is not to resurrect the woolly mammoth, but to resurrect woolly mammoth genes in order to create a hybrid with a modern elephant — a mammophant. If they can successfully create this hybrid, an elephant that can withstand Arctic conditions, theoretically they could be introduced into the Arctic. Once there, they would do what they do best: trample the landscape, thus helping restore the permafrost.
While the project is still years away from being done, the hope is that not only will mammophants combat climate change in the Arctic, but also help endangered elephants by introducing much needed genetic diversity and new potential habitats safe from human communities.
As science continues to advance, so do the possibilities for a greener future. We may not know what’s to come, but we do know the planet needs our help. You can start helping today, by switching to a 100% clean energy plan.
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