Author’s Note: Inspiration for this story came from the documentary “Lost Beasts of the Ice Age” on Discovery Channel. Information on Pleiostene Park from Wikipedia.
Tributary of the Protoka Ulstrovskaya River
North of Belaya Gura, Sakha Republic, Siberia
August 5, 2019
The dig site was miserable. Outside, the sun beat down relentlessly. Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle meant the sun never set in the summertime. The land, covered by snow and ice for nine months out of the year, burst into life in the short season. I stepped out of the tent, checking my had and layered jackets. August didn’t mean it was warm out, as a good day would reach sixty degrees. The river was ice cold, as were the winds coming off it.
The footing wasn’t any better. While the snow melted away, it left behind a layer of mud and sand. Below that was permafrost, You had to walk carefully, or you might leave a boot behind you on the walk to the boat. The river had receded quite a bit since the early summer flooding, leaving only quicksand-like deposits and mud to cross.
So why was I here in the middle of the Siberian tundra?
Blame my fascination with the Ice Age movie.
I watched that movie hundreds of times as a kid. My friends liked sports, dinosaurs or Star Wars; my walls had posters of wooly mammoths. I read everything I could find about them, along with wooly rhinoceros, steppe bison, cave bears, cave lions, reindeer, musk ox, and grey wolves all roamed the grasslands that formed modern-day Siberia. I never dropped the interest, majoring in Integrative Biology for a bachelor’s, and was now pursuing a doctorate in Evolutionary Biology focused on Ice Age life.
My educational choices were a source of conflict with my parents. My father was the owner and CEO of Cantwell Energy Solutions, which provided technical support to oil drilling operations, including survey, repair, and recovery. Lewis Cantwell was a classic Type-A executive; he worked seventy hours a week, did everything at full speed, and expected others to be the same. He’d not so much dated my Mom as he had researched and interviewed her. Mom was beautiful, intelligent, athletic, and had the right family connections to help his career. Carolyn fell in love with him, ran his home, and gave him two sons and one daughter that looked good in the photos we took every Christmas. Beyond that, I rarely saw him, and I never heard him talk about me like I was anything but a waste of potential.
As the eldest child, he expected me to follow in his footsteps. That meant Ivy-league education in petroleum engineering, postgraduate work in business or law, and summer internships. Once school was over, he would move me into various positions within his company to prepare me to take over when he retired.
The problem was that I had no interest in any of it, nor did I admire his company and what they stood for. I was in high school the first time I challenged him on his company’s contributions to global warming. We nearly came to blows over the roast beef. Mom quickly banned all discussions of politics, energy, or climate when the two of us were at home together. Thankfully, that wasn’t often.
You can imagine how the conversation went when I made my college choice. My grades, test scores, and my father’s connections got me into Harvard’s Integrative Biology program. My Mom, who wanted me to be happy until I eventually came to my senses, talked my Dad into supporting it. “It’s only an undergrad degree, and biology is pre-Med,” she told him. “Let him pursue his interests, and when he grows up, he’ll listen to you.”
Four years later, I still wasn’t listening. Dad threatened to cut off my support unless I studied an approved subject, and I threatened to run off and join a Greenpeace expedition to stop offshore drilling in Alaska. As the expedition involved “directed actions” that could get me arrested, the potential embarrassment was enough to get him to back down. I returned to Harvard that fall, beginning my graduate education in biology.
My savior came from an unlikely source. Our middle brother, Patrick, was studying Computer Science at MIT; he might make millions in the tech area, but he didn’t care about oil. My little sister, Melanie, turned out to have an interest in business and money that her older brothers did not. She would be attending the Wharton School of Business in a year.
That left me free to follow my dreams. While at Harvard, I’d made contact with geneticist George Church. His research focused on using fragments of DNA recovered from Wooly Mammoths in Siberia and grafting them into Asian Elephant DNA. His ultimate goal was to restore the species, extinct for over four millennia, to the Arctic Steppes.
It was a radical idea, but potentially one with global effects. The extinction of large species such as wooly mammoths and wooly rhinoceros speeded up changes in the world climate. The vast grasslands, maintained by the large animals ripping up small trees and shrubs, began to turn into pine forests. The forests absorbed more of the limited sunlight, raising the temperature of the air and the ground. The steppe regions became permafrost tundra, and the loss of grasslands took away the food that previously supported the large herds.
And permafrost was a climate bomb with the fuse lit. As the world warmed, the trillions of tons of methane trapped in the frozen lands would slowly release. Methane was a far more significant contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide. It was a vicious cycle; global warming melts more permafrost, the methane causes the world to warm faster, and that causes more permafrost to melt.
Last summer, I worked at Pleistocene Park, a nature reserve on the Kolyma River in northeast Siberia. There, Russian scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov are testing the hypothesis that overhunting was primarily responsible for the extinction of wildlife and the disappearance of grasslands at the end of the Pleistocene Era. They established a fenced-in, sixteen-square-kilometer preserve of tundra and started introducing large grazing animals into it. Bison, wild horses, moose, yaks, sheep, and musk oxen are all present now.
The experiment seems to be working. The scientists kick-started it using large vehicles in place of the largest animals to crush paths through dense willow shrubs. The grazing animals packed the soil, and grasses soon replaced mosses and weeds. Soon, grassland dominated the landscape inside the fences. As the scientists hoped, the changes had the desired effect on the permafrost. With outside air temps at -40c, control areas had a ground temperature of only -5c, while places where grazers trampled the snow were at -30c.
All this brought me to Siberia in August. The ivory tusks of a wooly mammoth were worth up to eighty thousand dollars a pair, and locals risked jail to get them. They would use water pumps to blast into the mud along rivers, searching for animals frozen underground. Authorities couldn’t stop it, but they could limit the damage. Russian authorities had authorized a group to search for remains of wooly mammoths with two conditions. First, they must have government supervision. Second, they must cooperate with scientists to preserve any significant finds. Our group was here to identify, preserve, and study these frozen carcasses. I would bring the best DNA samples back to Harvard.
For a Paleobiologist, this was Disneyland.