An Italian correspondent visited a unique Pleistocene Park on the border of Yakutia, where a Russian scientist is trying to recreate the age of mammoths. This article describes his impressions on the trip. “This is a feasible solution for turning back time.”
Two scientists, father and son. A seemingly crazy idea: to go back to the age of mammoths to fight climate change. It's the Pleistocene Park, 30 kilometers from Chersky village in the Russian Arctic. On the roof of the world. ANSA was the first Italian media to visit the park.
I finally did it. It took me almost 40 years, but I was able to find the rabbit hole. And I fell in it with joy. Only Wonderland is not in the English countryside – unfortunately for Lewis Carroll – but in Chersky village on the border of Yakutia, beyond the Russian Arctic Circle. It was here that in 1996 Sergey Zimov, now a legend in his field, founded the Pleistocene Park. An absurd idea, a mix of scientific experiment and geoengineering and, perhaps, even very good real estate investment. On the other end of the rabbit hole reality merges with dream. As it should. The result is a new world. Where the trees are the great enemies of man, time to save the permafrost (and therefore our civilization) has almost expired and animals return to graze among the Arctic ice, just as in the Pleistocene, the era in which we turned from humans to gods. Only mammoths are missing. But it won't last. Perhaps, if everything goes as planned, they'll be there soon. Wonderland, indeed. Which offers us a tangible solution to stop, or at least mitigate, climate change by turning back time. So, now you have to get comfortable and follow the rabbit. Because this incredible story will take time. And it is about life — our life.
Northeast Science Station. Aspiration and flight
Yakutia Airlines’ Antonov AN-24 lands on Chersky's unpaved landing field almost 11 hours late. My ears are falling off after four hours of turboprop, my brain is annihilated by jetlag: the difference with Moscow is already eight hours and I cannot tell when or how much I really slept last time. The Sun sinks into the river that surrounds the airfield. I walk to the exit with my backpack on my shoulder with the other passengers, most of them locals that returned from vacation. They are carrying whole boxes of eggs carefully wrapped with tape. It's a rare commodity here in the Arctic. Almost a parallel currency, the locals tell me.
Nikita, Sergey’s son, meets me with a smile on his face. This tall man is 35 years old, has three daughters and he is the real engine of both the park and the Northeast Science Station (NESS). That's where we're headed now. It was founded in 1977, and Sergey started running it in the mid-eighties and never left since. With the fall of the Soviet Union he took over, expanded and transformed the station. And now it is the only private research center in the entire Arctic circle. Despite the fact that it's almost evening it's not cold and Nikita is only wearing a t-shirt and a sweatshirt. “In July, we went water skiing on the river...” he says. “Really, I'm not kidding.” I believe him. That is possible. You read it everywhere that Arctic regions are overheating more than any other area of the Earth. But when you actually find yourself in a t-shirt at night in late August 2,000 kilometers from the North Pole, well, you realize that the situation is really getting out of hand.
As soon as I get my luggage (they take themselves it from an old truck with hammer and sickle printed on the doors) we jump on a Land Rover and head to the station. “In documentaries and films you can see that everyone drives these jeeps in nature parks: as soon as I could afford it I bought one,” Nikita says proudly. Perfect choice. The roads here are a nightmare. To get to the station, you need to go through downtown Chersky: a pile of Soviet-era concrete buildings built on the permafrost. Once there were more than 12,000 residents, now there is a little more than 2,000. Those who can run away. The government has invested in building a school and new kindergartens here, but the mining sector, the heart of local activities, no longer brings income. People like Zimov, who built an empire here in their own way, are hard to find in these latitudes. On the way to the station we pass by a large radar. I immediately think of top secret military installations. By the way, in order to get to Chersky, I had to ask for special permission from the FSB, the security services heir of the KGB. But I'm wrong. “The bulk of the local budget comes from airline transit fees: mainly from the Los Angeles-Beijing route, which flies right above us,” Nikita explains to me. In short, from coal mining to carbon dioxide emissions: there is no denying that fate did not have a sense of humor towards Chersky.
However, here is the NESS in the middle of the taiga. A round central building is surmounted by a gigantic parabola of at least 10 meters in diameter. Inexorably Soviet in its design. I'm blown away because I feel like I ended up on the Forest Moon of Endor, where most of Return of the Jedi, the third chapter of the old Star Wars trilogy, is set. Only Ewoks and Imperial Army are missing. Suddenly my fatigue is gone (here it is, the magic of returning to childhood) and I bombard Nikita with questions. The parabolic antenna was used for transmitting TV signal during the Soviet era, but now it is not used: it is a monument to the glory of the past. “But let's continue at the table, it's dinner time,” he offers, not giving me a chance to answer. Living room is located right under the antenna: where the propaganda of the regime once was televised, now researchers from all over the world meet. I'm quickly beginning to realize that the NESS is a special place. And this is the first miracle of the Zimovs.
Galina, Nikita's mother, shows me my room. It is located in the parallelepiped next to the central building; Sergey built it to expand the station's capacity. I share it with Yuri Palmtag, an associate professor at Northumbria University in Newcastle. He is German of Russian origin, Swedish by adoption (his wife and children live in Stockholm). He is literally a globetrotter. It is thanks to people like Yuri that we sometimes read the chronicles of the ongoing climate disaster in the newspapers: they are the ones who spend month after month taking samples, conducting analysis and comparing data. The NESS is their hostel and they spend evenings telling stories of Arctic. Over beer and vodka. At first, such luxury is incomprehensible to me, but we are in Russia, after all. “All the other Northern bases are state owned, so alcohol is prohibited there,” Yuri tells me. “The NESS is unique in this sense.” Nikita takes almost more pride in it than in his jeep. “People who come here are always under pressure, they have little time to do their research: it’s important to be able to relieve stress,” he says. “This year, we consumed 2,000 bottles of beer and 250 bottles of vodka... We had more Russian scientists than usual and we ran out of everything... I just went shopping today before your arrival,” he admits, pouring the first round of shots. And then he makes a toast.
This night is the last with everyone together. The research season is coming to an end. Besides me and Yuri, there are two French researchers from Aix-Marseille University: Eugene, Ph. D. student, and (none other than) professor Jean-Michel Claverie, a world-famous environmental virologist (you heard of the study on revived microorganisms that existed tens of thousands of years ago? He was the one behind it). Then there are also three researchers from the University of Maine, led by an Italian, Alessandro Mereghetti. Plus, of course, the station staff and the Zimov clan: besides Nikita and his mother Galina, there are his wife Nastya, his three daughters, and a founder Sergey at the table. The atmosphere is warm and intimate. There are the flags of the nationalities of the researchers housed at NESS on the walls; there are also a library with books in English available to everyone, a cast iron stove, two armchairs and a sofa surmounted by a bearskin. And plenty of good food.
“It's not a science station, it's a five-star resort, trust me.” Alessandro and his team leave the next day. Of course we cannot resist switching to Italian and the others banter us. I find out he's completing a Ph. D. in paleoarchaeology, with a focus on the so-called tundra steppe (mammoth steppe). That is, essentially, what they are trying to rebuild in the Pleistocene Park. “It's the only place in the world where this kind of project is being attempted: this year we've been here for five days, and we've collected data, but we're probably going back for a more serious research,” he said. I am impatient, I want to understand if the experiment is working, whether Sergey and Nikita are managing to prevent the melting of permafrost by recreating the mammoth ecosystem and thus, offer an additional economical and sustainable weapon in the war against climate change. “It’s working, it’s working,” Alessandro assures me. “Of course, we need more data... and then, I'm not such a permafrost godfather as Nikita and Sergey, they will explain everything to you... But I can tell you that I have explored the caves in the area and the permafrost is in a deplorable state.” This is the key to understanding the importance of the park. Because if the permafrost melts, huge amounts of greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere, and the climate change could take an apocalyptic character. Some say Sergey and Nikita are mad. They are scientists, but mad. Yes, maybe a little. However, I consider it only an advantage: there is no progress without a little bit of madness. And, given what I've seen, we need more madmen as the Zimovs.
Along the Kolyma River. Rock the tundra
“Yes, I know, people generally love trees. But the problem is that they are useless, at least here in the Arctic. In fact, they do more damage... And they are a breeding ground for mosquitoes.” Nikita chose a portion of tundra in the park to give an introductory lecture. Perhaps, as a punishment. Indeed, mosquitoes are everywhere. Huge. Hungry. Annoying. Nikita assures me that this is nothing compared to June and the beginning of summer. Then, it is impossible to walk without repellents and protective nets: otherwise, you will be eaten alive. To get to the park, we took an hour boat ride along the tributary of Kolyma, one of the great Siberian rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean. The fenced area has now reached 20 square kilometers (out of a total of 144 of the entire park). Inside is the sancta sanctorum. That is a fenced area of 50 hectares. It is the original soil of the park, constantly “cultivated” since 1996, where mostly animals live.
At first, it doesn't look like much: a farm like many others. But you should take into account that we are 30 kilometers from Chersky, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by impenetrable vegetation. Everything was brought here by river, right down to the last nail. “This is my father's concept, I probably contributed 1% to the design at most,” Nikita admits, swatting another mosquito. "If we talk about implementation, however, the percentage is reversed.” Translation: this is constant hard work. Fortunately, Nikita has a sense of humor, that irresistible pleasure in discovering bitter contradictions, so typical of Russians. You can see that veil of doubt in his eyes, always visible in people who have dedicated their lives to someone else's dream which has only now begun to bear fruit. You feel clear and precise effort to build the central house, where three people live now permanently (all year). And the corrals. And the cave dug by pickaxe first (and jackhammer then) in permafrost. Not to mention the animals. The latest acquisition is 11 American bison bought in Denmark. Nikita picked them up by truck and drove 40 days to get them to the park. In total, the fauna here consists of 13 bison (American and European), 15 Kalmyk cattle, about 10 moose, 4 musk oxen, about 30 reindeer, 18 sheep, 8 wild yaks and 25 wild Yakutian horses. The reason for this effort is the scientific basis of the park.
“The Pleistocene ecosystem was so productive that trees could never become so dense,” explains Nikita. “Even in these latitudes. The invasion of trees began only after the appearance of people 13 thousand years ago.” It continues now, given that compared to 20,000 years ago, even with all the deforestation in modern era, the forests have expanded by about ten times. Therefore, the steppe dominated at the mammoth age: immense expanses of grass furrowed by great herbivores, the so-called megafauna. They were the ones who kept the trees at bay. This huge ecosystem, rich in biodiversity, survived for thousands of years in several ice ages. Its crisis began with the conquest of the planet by Homo sapiens. Nikita continues: “Here in the Arctic, humans have been able to reduce the level of herbivores by 10 times, which affected the ability of animals to maintain the purity of the territory and the viability of pastures. Bushes and shrubs appeared and slowly spread, limiting the available grass. So, 10,000 years ago, taiga and forest-tundra started expanding: a desert, in terms of biodiversity. In fact, trees are weed species because they don’t bring any benefit to the soil and they don’t feed anyone. In my opinion, the last of the mammoths didn’t die because of hunters, but from starvation.”
The amortization of megafauna proceeded in the same rate as the expansion of humans in Europe, North and South America. Only in Africa large herbivores resisted the impact of humans, evidently because they co-existed with them for so long that they had learned to defend themselves. Also, because they originate from a different ecosystem than the steppe. In the Arctic, tree spreading and biosphere desertification resulted in a new climate balance. Potentially catastrophic now that the Earth is overheating. The trees, indeed, lose their leaves, darken, and when the brief Arctic summer comes they attract the Sun which shines 24 hours a day for months. “We conducted research, and it turned out that the wooded area produces 160 Watts more energy per square meter compared to the grassy areas,” Nikita says. So, it is warm. On the contrary, herbage, being lighter in shade, reflects the Sun. Thus, it protects the permafrost better. In comparison with trees, grass turns out to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and accumulate it in the soil perfectly.
“I'm not saying that trees are absolute evil,” Nikita justifies himself quickly. “Take tropics for example. The climate is warm and very humid. Organic matter in the soil decomposes quickly there. Therefore, large tropical trees make sense because they live long and retain greenhouse gases. But in the Arctic, the soil is cold, the roots of the trees don’t go deep into the ground, the trunks don’t grow much and thus, according to our data, the maximum capacity of carbon retention — outside the soil — is two kilograms per square meter. On the contrary, grass roots go deep, reduce the level of humidity, and thanks to photosynthesis the turf transfers carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ground, where it remains closed due to the cold.” So, speaking of the fight against greenhouse gases, in the Arctic regions the grass (therefore the steppe) certainly prevails over the trees (that is, forest tundra). “To give you an idea of the difference,” continues Nikita, “imagine that the traditional Arctic ecosystem transfers 10-16 kilograms of CO2 per square meter to the ground. After 20 years, the data from the first fence of the park tells us about an average 26 kilograms per square meter, and the maximum is 65 kilograms. We estimate the potential to be 100 kilograms. Outside of the park, where animals aren’t actively grazed, we still come to an average of 22 kilograms.” Not to mention that the grass is not subject to fires, unlike taiga — which we unfortunately witnessed this hot summer, when millions of hectares went up in smoke. And all the carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere.
Large herbivores are thus the key for activating the Zimov model we discussed above. To fight climate change on a global scale, we need to forget about electric cars and solar panels for a moment: what we really need are mammoths.
Inside The Pleistocene. Jurassic-Arctic Park
“Never trust the scientists who claim to conduct research using drones: they're just playing with the latest gadget.” Nikita is leaning over the control panel: he wants to make sure his bison are all right. They have just arrived in June, so it would be unwise to disturb them at close quarters. So, he shows them to me from a distance. The tour of the park is over – Eugene and Jean-Michel also came with me – and among other things we stopped to chat in the middle of a savanna sketch. That is, tall shrubs separated by large plots of turf. “There are no books that would explain how to recreate an extinct and extremely productive ecosystem or Pleistocene for dummies,” jokes Nikita, landing the drone and picking up a coffee maker. “The park is a big puzzle and we move in the dark. But I am sure of one thing: give me mammoths and in a few years you won’t recognize this place.”
That sounds like a joke. Or a sign that the Zimovs are ultimately insane. Or that they drink too much vodka at the NESS. Or both. Nikita is actually serious. Harvard geneticist George Church started his own team – the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team – with the goal to revive mammoths. Church is currently using the CRISPR genetic engineering technique to “copy and paste” DNA from the mammoth genome into the cell culture of living elephants. At the moment, a number of genes have been successfully transplanted into Asian elephant cell chains, generating cells increasingly resembling mammoth cells from one modification to another. “Mutations associated with hemoglobin, the growth of extra fur, the production of fat, up to adaptations to climate, such as sodium ion channels which have undergone some changes in cell tissues, have already been transplanted into cell chains,” says the website of Revive&Restore. It is “a major species conservation organization that promotes the introduction of genetic tools in conservation practices standard by bringing together academic or commercial laboratories and conservation professionals working in the field.” Church visited Chersky and promised Sergey and Nikita to donate first mammoths to the Pleistocene Park. In short, the assumption that in the near enough future Nikita can really count on mammoths to level their part of the taiga did not come out of nowhere.
However, Church is not the only one who is trying to revive mammoths. Jean-Michel visited laboratories that chose the path of “classical” cloning in Yakutsk. That is, starting with DNA taken from the organic remains of animals found in permafrost. “Japan and South Korea are very far ahead in this regard, but not Yakutsk,” he says. “I can recognize a laboratory equipped for such advanced research and their laboratory is not.” Anyway, the race began. Church has the advantage of taking a more practical approach, perhaps the only one possible. There are those who argue that cloning like in a real Jurassic Park is not possible because tissue samples are too degraded after thousands of years in the permafrost.
Church's mammoth, when and if it arrives, will be a sort of modified Asian elephant. Nikita stays positive, serving coffee from his heart: "That’s enough for me, I'm fine even if it has five legs..." The timelines? Not biblical. Church overestimated his expectations, predicting that he would finish “within five years.” That caused a storm: dozens of articles about it online, so the American geneticist has since disappeared from the radar, perhaps fearing that he overestimated his capabilities. “I know Church well,” Jean-Michel admits. “He really is a genius and I'm sure he can do it; it just takes a lot of money.” How much? Jean-Michel responds confidently, as if he had seen the contract. “About a billion dollars.” Which, when you think about it, is not even that much – a couple of donations from Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and that's it.
Of course, if you look around the cabin in the park, nothing seems to be further from freezing genetic engineering laboratories. Here (except for drones and scientific instruments) the means are all low-tech, a mixture of Soviet-era wrecks and “hybrids” built at the behest. Like the boat we use: a military-grade metal hull, the riveted and reinforced windshield of an old Lada, and comfortable leather seats of a BMW. Russian Mad Max. I dare not think what it must be to live here in the winter, when the abnormal +25ºC turn into -50ºC, and the polar night falls for three months. “It's not easy, but it has its own poetry,” philosophizes the head of Nikita's “cowboys”. His name is Rinaldo, but he is Russian. I tell you, it’s Wonderland. With or without mammoths.
Permafrost in Duvanny Yar. The Guardians of Permafrost
When they say that history comes to life. We sailed for four hours on the Kolyma river, and the cliff of Duvanny Yar permafrost looms before me at last. It is a legendary place for scientists from all over the world in at least a dozen disciplines, from paleontologists to biologists. Here, 130 kilometers from Chersky, the river has indeed eroded the banks and entire ridges of permafrost rich in greenhouse gases or, as they are called, “edoma”, exposing them. In summer, this process is continuous: the Sun heats the ice masses that are in the ground, and the soil settles. As they fall, thousands of years old fossils are piled on the banks of the river: mammoth tusks, megafauna bones, roots, and various organic material. Eugene and Jean-Michel will stay here for a few days to conduct their research, and Nikita will come back to pick them up when they are finished. For me, this is the perfect chance to finally understand in great detail what is this notorious permafrost that everyone is talking about.
For a start, we stop to visit a group of researchers, Nikita’s friends. They are on a boat, and on the opposite bank is the cliff of Duvanny Yar. Looks like they're running out of supplies, so we give them some. Actually, I think they're doing great. The crew, in addition to the scientists, also consists of some local “divers”. But to be honest, once you get on board, it is hard to tell one from the other. Stanislav greets me by waving a knife that he's cleaning a giant trout with. He says he is a fisherman. In fact, he is a scientist from the Pushchino State Institute of Natural Science in Moscow. Miron is introduced as a “professor”. But he is a sailor, the man who knows the Kolyma like the back of his hand. I cannot refuse a round of vodka while the captain roasts freshly caught fish. The clouds cleared and the sky is dazzling blue. The spirit on the boat is high and everyone is happy to chat, letting off a joke after a joke. Here on the Kolyma, it is a proletarian science: everyone dives into the mud of Duvanny Yar together.
At some point, Nikita lets me know that it's time to leave and hisses in my ear: “They will try to give you a fish, but you hold on.” That is exactly how it turns out. I try to mutter something, but Stanislav is so insistent that we get on our boat with two full bags of fish. When we are at a safe distance, Nikita looks into the package and, seeing the sturgeon there, rolls his eyes and throws it back into the river. “You risk jail, you mad fools.” He steps on the gas.
When you see the elevation of permafrost up close, it is really impressive. The ice columns shine in the sun and, depending on the reflections, turn silver and metallic blue. We approach them cautiously because of the high risk of collapses: the hill is constantly creaking, sounding like a glacial front. And in some ways, it really is. Nikita shows me a section of permafrost in which you can clearly see thin parallel lines: each strip represents a year of sedimentation, like tree rings. In the ridge, you can clearly see a myriad of small roots – they're all thousands of years old. I saw the same phenomenon in the park's cave, but here, in Duvanny Yar, the scale has increased tenfold and every detail is clearly visible.
The cliff before me is actually the tip of an iceberg. Yakutia's edoma is located in a basin as extensive as Texas and, according to analysis by the American National Academy of Sciences, contains more carbon than there is in the Earth's atmosphere and vegetation combined. “If it melts, as many emissions as the United States produces in a year will be released,” Nikita explains. “This is the best-case scenario. Others estimate doubling of all greenhouse gases produced by man.” The problem is that we have already come too close. “When I was little, the average annual temperature was -11ºC while the permafrost was about -7ºC. Now the atmospheric average is -8ºC, 3 degrees higher: the same change has occurred with the permafrost, perhaps even more. And that’s the point, now it’s neither permanent nor frost,” Nikita says.
Stories circulating at NESS confirm Nikita’s analysis. Then I remember Yuri’s words in one of “white nights”, when he told me about his last mission to Greenland. He said he spent two weeks in a light t-shirt among idyllic lakes and sun-burned vegetation. “Never seen anything like it within ten kilometers from drift ice.” Unfortunately, gradually we came to a new norm, to a constant variable. “In our region, the coldest point of permafrost reaches -4ºC, but the average is between -2ºC and -1ºC. The permafrost is warmer than the atmosphere because in summer the heat penetrates into the ground and then, when the snow falls, it stays there: without snow there would be no difference between the temperature above and below,” says Nikita. Then animals come into play, trampling and tamping snow, thus creating a communication channel and cooling the soil. “In the park, the permafrost has a temperature 2-3 degrees lower than in the outer areas with no animals,” Nikita claims.
Therefore, the Pleistocene Park works. On the way back to the NESS, gliding on the waves of the great river, I can't help but think of the implications of the Zimov model on a global scale, if only we had the will to take serious steps to stop the apocalypse which we are happily and blissfully approaching. From here on, in fact, the good news ends. As soon as we go ashore, Nikita points to one of the houses on the isthmus opposite the station. “My father lives there, and he’s waiting for you.” Finally, I will meet the founder. Not that I have not already known him: Sergey, as I said, comes to the station for lunch and dinner. But then he disappears. And if Nikita always has a smile on his lips, ready to joke, his father is the exact opposite: the inscrutable face of a Sphinx, the very personification of seriousness. So, I walk into his house with the same trepidation as Neo when he goes to meet the Oracle in the first Matrix.
I find Sergey in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette and bent over the open stove turned off. I sit down, take a couple of his portraits, and we have a small talk. I have many questions for him, but the first one comes out almost by itself, without much thought. How did you come up with this idea? I see him dig his into memory, but only a little. In fact, he already has an answer. “I like to live in beauty, and the surrounding here is not beautiful at all. I like parks. Like everyone else. And it’s no coincidence. This is what the Pleistocene looked like: expanses of grass and magnificent trees. I wanted it to be a pleasant place for me and my family to live in.” The answer is slightly disappointing. Then I realize that Sergey likes to give the impression of a cynic, it is the part he plays. The conversation quickly turns to climate change and the melting of the Arctic. “I'm ready for anything. I built my houses on a rock, not the permafrost, and I invested in floating barges. I’m not scared of the rising water level in the oceans: if the climate here gets warmer, the land I own will be worth a thousand times more and I’ll get very rich.” However, his tough mask falls off as soon as his middle granddaughter (I suspect his favorite) walks through the kitchen.
He talks seriously now: “However, our civilization will only survive if the climate remains sustainable in large parts of our planet, so we must be responsible towards our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Those who do not have them can’t understand what hope is. The situation is critical; we have passed the stability threshold. In last two years, permafrost has started to melt everywhere in our region. They said it would happen in 100 years. No, it's already started. And if it continues, I tell you that in the next 10 years permafrost is likely to disappear altogether. It’s a rapid process. And we are talking about the coldest areas... Now, imagine places where the average temperature of permafrost is not -9ºC, but -3ºC.” Now, I am talking to a scientist, the same one who offered Science magazine an article describing the huge climatic impact of melting edoma in Siberia in 1998. He was turned down. The article was too far ahead of its time. A simple proof of this followed in 2006, when the magazine contacted Sergey and asked him to re-submit his research. The time has come. The article was published. So, I think listening to him is not a bad idea. He emphasizes: “The bad thing is that our permafrost is rich not only in CO2, but also in methane, and this greenhouse gas is 25 times more powerful than CO2. Our goal now is to mitigate climate change; to buy time. In 300 years, the problem will be smaller, there will be new technologies and new cities. But we must start now: if we act quickly, maybe we can reduce damage to permafrost by 5-10 times.”
In truth, Sergey does not believe that the world can really reduce anthropogenic emissions. “It’s too expensive, and capitalism will not allow it,” he says. “So, let's do what we can.” This means that it is possible to take the Zimov model and distribute it everywhere, especially in Siberia. Only on one condition. “The international community must deal with this, because the risks of climate change pose a global challenge. Russia alone can't handle it. In particular, because warming will benefit our country: we could double our GDP.” So, the reasoning is that we cannot make turkeys vote for Christmas. But there's more. “Let's say Vladimir Putin decides to follow the example of the park on the vast territory of Siberia. Other countries would say “Ah, Putin wants to tackle climate change, it's dangerous.” That is why the international community needs to be coordinated. I say: the scientific foundations of the park are solid, geoengineering with animals is inexpensive and useful at various levels. And then, it doesn’t bring additional profit to Putin because the climate will be colder. What else do you all of you need?” That plural form obviously addresses the West. “Only fools would get into a fight with Russia now... We have enough room to accommodate the entire European population.”
When I turned off the recorder (not that Sergey paid much attention to it), we switched to all sorts of little things: children, Italy, and the future. Then, before leaving him, I feel the urge to satisfy my last curiosity. How did a man born and raised in St. Petersburg decide to move to Chersky, one of the most remote and inhospitable places in the world? Sergey thinks about it. First, his gaze wanders, then meets mine, and suddenly I feel all his power. When he finally answers, it's a real execution: “Because I was looking for freedom.”
People of Kolyma. There and back again
My time in Chersky is up, but before taking me to the airfield, Nikita finds time to show me the damage to the town and its suburbs by climate warming. “When my father says that Russia will benefit from climate, I'm not so sure: let’s just say it will be affected less,” he says, clutching the steering wheel of his Land Rover. We are climbing the hills that overlook Chersky where dozens of small lakes appear like mushrooms. Again, all because of the permafrost melting. It all starts with a puddle, and then the temperature gradually increases due to the effect of water attraction, the pit expands and becomes a lake. As a result, some roads have already turned into country roads.
Downtown, things are even worse, if that's even possible. A building partially collapsed, swallowed by a chasm opened up in the permafrost: two years ago it had started with a small crack and in 24 months half the hill just disappeared. There is a frightening and discouraging feeling that the countdown has started. Before saying goodbye, I ask Nikita what the next steps are to carry on the dream of the park, mammoths aside. He has ideas: many more herbivores and then, if the ecosystem allows, the introduction of predators; the only obstacle is finances. “The science station is active, while the park only brings expenses: to buy the bison, we launched a crowdfunding campaign and we received some donations,” says Nikita. But, in essence, it is all self-financed. “Maybe, sooner or later something comes out of it...” The expansion of the park to an extent sufficient to have an impact on the climate is of course a fantasy; Nikita does not even consider this hypothesis. He is also pessimistic about the future of humanity, like his father. But if Sergey actually gave this Marxist explanation, then Zimov Jr. refers to the anthropological reason.
“We humans are naturally weak creatures: defenseless up to 10 years, we begin to reproduce at 15. To evolve, we had to find our niche. For millions of years, we've been ecosystem scavengers, bone pickers. Thanks to our tools, we have found a way to break them and feed on the marrow. In fact, our survival model was grabbing and running. And perhaps the climate change is happening because of this, because we still have this atavistic hunger in our genes: when we see a resource, we grab it and use it, and we don't have an understanding of its efficiency. Got any oil? We’ll extract it out until we run out of it. Got any gas? We’ll pump it to the last breath. A pack of wolves would never do that…”
Nikita takes me to the customs control (the entire airport consists of two rooms) and makes sure everything is all right: we shake hands and go our own ways. As the plane takes off, I see Chersky disappearing, and I feel as if I have been told a terrible prophecy. Resembling ancient one, where the answer lies in the most mysterious and ambiguous wording. And both yesterday and today, everything depends solely on us.
By Mattia Bernardo Bagnoli