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Mammoth Dung, Prehistoric Goo May Speed Warming

Date: 18-Sep-07
Country: RUSSIA
Author: Dmitry Solovyov

"It smells like mammoth dung," he says.

This is more than just another symptom of global warming.

For millennia, layers of animal waste and other organic
matter left behind by the creatures that used to roam the Arctic
tundra have been sealed inside the frozen permafrost. Now
climate change is thawing the permafrost and lifting this
prehistoric ooze from suspended animation.

But Zimov, a scientist who for almost 30 years has studied
climate change in Russia's Arctic, believes that as this organic
matter becomes exposed to the air it will accelerate global
warming faster than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts.

"This will lead to a type of global warming which will be
impossible to stop," he said.

When the organic matter left behind by mammoths and other
wildlife is exposed to the air by the thawing permafrost, his
theory runs, microbes that have been dormant for thousands of
years spring back into action.

As a by-product they emit carbon dioxide and -- even more
damaging in terms of its impact on the climate -- methane gas.

According to Zimov, the microbes are going to start emitting
these gases in enormous quantities.

Here in Yakutia, a region in the north-eastern corner of
Siberia, the belt of permafrost containing the mammoth-era soil
covers an area roughly the size of France and Germany combined.
There is even more of it elsewhere in Siberia.

"The deposits of organic matter in these soils are so
gigantic that they dwarf global oil reserves," Zimov said.

US government statistics show mankind emits about 7
billion tonnes of carbon a year.

"Permafrost areas hold 500 billion tonnes of carbon, which
can fast turn into greenhouse gases," Zimov said.

"If you don't stop emissions of greenhouse gases into the
atmosphere ... the Kyoto Protocol (an international pact aimed
at reducing greenhouse emissions) will seem like childish
prattle."

METHANE EMISSIONS

It might be easy to dismiss the 52-year-old, with his beard
and shock of wavy hair, as an alarmist crank. But his theory is
grabbing attention in the scientific community.

"There's quite a bit of truth in it," Julian Murton, member
of the International Permafrost Association, told Reuters.

"The methane and carbon dioxide levels will increase as a
result of permafrost degradation."

A United Nations report in June said there was at yet no
sign of widespread melting of permafrost that could stoke global
warming, but noted the potential threat.

"Permafrost stores a lot of carbon, with upper permafrost
layers estimated to contain more organic carbon than is
currently contained in the atmosphere," the report said.

"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."

CRACKS IN THE WALLS

Zimov is chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science's
North Eastern Scientific station, three plane rides and eight
times zones away from Moscow.

At Duvanny Yar on the shores of the Kolyma River, the
phenomenon that Zimov describes in speeches at scientific
conferences can be seen first hand.

The steep-sided river bank, until now held up by permafrost,
is collapsing as the ice melts. Every few minutes, a thud can be
heard as another wedge of soil and permafrost comes tumbling
down, or a splash as a chunk falls into the river.

Nearby, Zimov points to an area so far unaffected by the
melting -- a forest of larch trees with berries and mushrooms
and covered with a soft cushion of moss and lichen.

Further down the slope though, the landscape is covered with
trees toppled over as the soil disintegrates. Brooks murmur down
the slope carrying melted water.

Elsewhere, places that five or 10 years ago were empty
tundra are now dotted with lakes -- a result of thawing
permafrost.

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