Though they have been extinct for around ten thousand years, some scientists are now claiming that their remains — of the "organic" variety — are coming back to haunt us. Sergei Zimov, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science's North Eastern Scientific station, believes that layers of mammoth waste and organic matter once trapped within the Arctic tundra's permafrost are being lifted back from suspended animation by its thawing. This large amount of frozen dung — more so than many other sources of organic matter, he argues — will accelerate the onset of global warming.
According to Zimov, the thawing of the dung will lead to the reawakening of microbes that have been dormant for thousands of years. He is worried that their activity will prompt the large-scale emission of carbon dioxide and, more worryingly, methane, as by-products. In Yakutia, Siberia, the region of permafrost encompassing the layers of mammoth-era waste covers an area equivalent to the combined size of France and Germany. "The deposits of organic matter in these soils are so gigantic that they dwarf global oil reserves. Permafrost areas hold 500 billion tonnes of carbon, which can fast turn into greenhouse gases," Zimov claims.While seemingly hard to believe, Julian Murton — a member of the International Permafrost Association — argues that Zimov's theory may not be too far off the mark. He explained that there is indeed "quite a bit of truth in it," and that the "methane and carbon dioxide levels will increase as a result of permafrost degradation." Indeed, a report recently issued by the UN noted the potential threat of the melting permafrost, stating that:
"Permafrost stores a lot of carbon, with upper permafrost layers estimated to contain more organic carbon than is currently contained in the atmosphere. Permafrost thawing results in the release of this carbon in the form of greenhouse gases which will have a positive feedback effect to global warming."
Only time will tell what effects the wide-scale thawing of tons of mammoth dung will ultimately have in intensifying the impact of global climate change. Zimov cautions that those living in surrounding areas should start taking notice as the domino effects of the melting permafrost would likely affect them within the next few years: "Siberia's landscape is changing. But in the end local problems of the north will inevitably turn into the problems of Russia's south, the Amazon region or Holland."
Via ::Reuters: Mammoth dung, prehistoric goo may speed warming (news website)