Let’s Bring the Wooly Mammoth Back from the Dead…?
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they never stopped to consider whether or not they should.”
– Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) from the film Jurassic Park
Scientists say creating hybrids of the extinct beasts could fix the Arctic tundra and stop greenhouse gas emissions
If you managed to time travel back to Ice-Age Europe, you might be forgiven for thinking you had instead crash landed in some desolate part of the African savannah. But the chilly temperatures and the presence of six-ton shaggy beasts with extremely long tusks would confirm you really were in the Pleistocene epoch, otherwise known as the Ice Age. You’d be visiting the mammoth steppe, an environment that stretched from Spain across Eurasia and the Bering Strait to Canada. It was covered in grass, largely devoid of trees and populated by bison, reindeer, tigers and the eponymous “woolly” mammoth.
Unfortunately, both mammoth and most of the mammoth steppe ecosystem today have long but disappeared. But a group of geneticists from Harvard are hoping to change this by cloning living elephant cells that contain a small component of synthesised mammoth DNA. They claim that reintroducing such mammoth-like creatures to Arctic tundra environments could help stop the release of greenhouse gases from the ground and reduce future emissions as temperatures rise due to climate change. While this might sound like a far-fetched idea, scientists have actually been experimenting with something similar for over 20 years.
Arctic lands are covered by areas of ground known as permafrost that have been frozen since the Pleistocene. Permafrost contains vast amounts of carbon from dead plant life that is locked away by the extremely cold temperatures. The amount of carbon in these frozen stores is estimated to be about twice as much as that currently in the atmosphere. If it thaws out, microbes will break down soil organic material to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
As a result, permafrost and the associated carbon pools have been likened to “sleeping giants” in our climate system. If they wake up, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions would raise global temperatures even further than currently projected, causing even greater global climate change (a process known as positive feedback).