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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Hoff

Bringing back the mammoths!

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I've been working on a great new science fiction book: Project Hannibal.

The story is inspired by the science of geneticist George M. Church and the real-life effort to revive the woolly mammoth. This isn't just a cool concept, it's a serious project with the serious purpose of saving Earth from climate catastrophe.

Did you know there is more carbon locked up in the permafrost layer--the layer of permanently frozen soil that underlies the arctic--than in all of Earth's atmosphere? That's good: but if the climate warms enough to start thawing permafrost soil, that carbon will be released in the form of greenhouse gases. So much, in fact, that all our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions could be overwhelmed. Worse, releasing more greenhouse gases could cause the arctic to warm further, melting more permafrost in a destructive cycle. It's vital to the planet's future to keep permafrost from thawing. So, where do mammoths fit in?

Grass. The only vegetation that grows on top of permafrost is grass. Its light color reflects the sun and keeps the ground below from thawing in summer. But where the arctic is warming, trees start to take root, digging into the frozen layer and thawing the soil below. How do you keep forests from encroaching on arctic grassland? Large herds of grass-munchers like muskox, caribou, and bison have been shown to help keep grassland intact, fending off the expansion of forests. But for a really big job like preserving the permafrost, you need a really big herbivore.

One thing elephants excel at is eating. Specifically, they can knock down and destroy even large trees. That's a huge problem in places where elephants share tropical lands with humans, but an elephant that's adapted to live in the arctic--a woolly mammoth--is perfect for keeping the trees at bay. Herds of them could drive back the forests, compact the soil, and help keep the permafrost frozen. That's the goal behind the real-life desire to bring mammoths back to life. (And the premise of a cool science fiction story.) And the effort may be closer than you think: Chinese scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute have been able to form embryonic cells from recovered, frozen mammoth tissue.

Recently, Siberia recorded its warmest temperature ever, over 100 degrees F. That should be a wake-up call to the whole world that climate change is real, it's now, and it's a threat to all of us.

And that's not fiction.

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