A precarious thaw

Published April 17, 2024
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE last few years have been the warmest ever recorded in the Arctic Circle. This means that a large portion of the ice cap is melting, and with it permafrost — a layer of soil that has remained frozen for at least two years and often for centuries, even millennia.

Pakistan is nowhere near the Arctic Circle but the high number of glaciers in the north of the country have also been melting at an alarming rate. Here too, permafrost which contains organic matter that is thousands of years old is thawing. Scientists have likened the phenomenon to the melting of an ancient freezer which reveals contents that have not been seen for thousands of years since the Ice Age.

In Siberia, the thawing permafrost is unearthing (among other things) bones of an animal known as the woolly mammoth. The last woolly mammoth perished more than 4,000 years ago but the bones of this species are now being found in several parts of northern Siberia where large portions of permafrost are thawing.

For all the treasures that it contains, permafrost poses a threat to humankind and Earth’s climate. As it defrosts, its organic matter is consumed by soil microbes that begin to break it down. In the process, they produce large amounts of carbon, which are released into the atmosphere. In some parts of Siberia, this carbon release is in the form of methane. Methane is not only bad for the environment, its build-up can also cause explosions, which is what has happened in parts of Siberia, where enormous craters have been created as a result.

Already, new lakes created by thawing permafrost are producing tons of methane and carbon dioxide. According to some estimates, lakes created by glacial melt or thawing permafrost constitute some 30 per cent of these water bodies worldwide. This has implications not only for the natural environment, but also built surroundings, as infrastructure such as roads in villages in areas of permafrost are adversely affected. According to scientists, the rapid thaw over the past few years has been dramatic and is going to change the landscape in unimaginable ways as huge amounts of ice melt unearths layers of soil that froze thousands of years ago.

Scientists have likened permafrost thaw to the melting of an ancient freezer which reveals contents that have not been seen since the Ice Age.

In Siberia, a scientist named Sergey Zimov has come up with an unusual solution. Zimov predicted the unearthing of permafrost and the problems it would pose decades ago. Zimov, who lives in Siberia, says that one way to tackle the problem is to recreate the landscape as it existed prior to the last Ice Age. His hypothesis is that the transformation from tundra to grassland will change the ratio of energy emission and energy absorption, which is what is needed to tackle thawing permafrost.

To do this, an area named Pleistocene Park has been created to study the climatic effects on the ecosystem when the landscape is changed to a “northern subarctic steppe grassland ecosystem”. One of the things that is being done to enable this is to repopulate the area with large herbivores like deer and also predators that would have been part of the ecosystem.

At this point, an interesting and ethically complex question has begun to present itself. One of the largest herbivores that adapted to the cold climate was the woolly mammoth, which had thick fur that enabled its survival. The last woolly mammoth died some 4,000 years ago, because of a mix of climatic factors and overhunting by human beings. Is it time to bring back animals like the woolly mammoth?

Advances in cloning science have already been successful (remember Dolly the sheep who was cloned from DNA?). Genome science means that the genetic sequence of woolly mammoths has already been mapped, owing to the large amounts of fossils that are being uncovered from all the melting. One theory suggests that a cloned embryo of a woolly mammoth could be implanted inside a female Asian elephant, who could carry it to term. Scientists admit that the animal that would be produced would not exactly be a woolly mammoth, but a very close relative — something between an elephant and a woolly mammoth. They believe that a large herbivore could help change the ratio of carbon emission and absorption that would otherwise be likely to cause a climate catastrophe.

This idea of ‘resurrecting’ animals and plants that have gone extinct is called ‘de-extinction’. It directly raises the question of when and to what extent human beings should be interfering in ‘recreating’ animals and plants that existed thousands of years ago. Scientific knowledge, despite its increasing prescience and accuracy, is still based on limited information. Will it ever be possible to foresee all the consequences of bringing back something that no longer exists, whose DNA we can extract from the organic matter that is being uncovered at a rapid rate? Beyond the unassessed dangers are questions of whether it is at all ethical to ‘create’ animals that will not have large communities or an existence beyond experiments.

Countries, including Pakistan, where there is permafrost that is thawing as global warming continues, should be engaged in these scientific conversations. While various task forces around the issue of climate change have been created by the government to discuss at international summits like COP, there is an urgent need to create others that are looking particularly at the issue of permafrost and its threat to the environment in terms of carbon emissions. It is true that this phenomenon needs greater study and research in the country.

Nevertheless, Pakistan must arm itself with knowledge around the subject and develop a strategy around it. There is increasing concern about climate change in the country, and no aspect of it must be left out.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2024

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