How horses can save the permafrost

New mitigation strategy bears great potential

University of Hamburg

Herds of herbivores preserve the permafrost -- even under strong global warming. Credit: Pleistocene Park
Herds of herbivores preserve the permafrost — even under strong global warming. Credit: Pleistocene Park

Permafrost soils in the Arctic are thawing. As they do, large additional quantities of greenhouse gases could be released, accelerating climate change. In Russia, experiments are now being conducted in which herds of horses, bison and reindeer are being used to combat this effect. A study from Universität Hamburg, just released in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, now shows for the first time that this method could indeed significantly slow the loss of permafrost soils.

Theoretically speaking, 80 percent of all permafrost soils around the globe could be preserved until the year 2100, as has now been demonstrated by Prof. Christian Beer from Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN), an expert on the permanently frozen soils found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. If no action is taken to prevent it, half of the world’s permafrost will thaw by 2100. The new study explores a somewhat unconventional countermeasure: resettling massive herds of large herbivores.

The inspiration came from Pleistocene Park in Chersky, a city in northeast Russia. Russian scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov resettled herds of bison, wisents, reindeer and horses there more than 20 years ago, and have been observing the effects on the soil ever since. In winter the permafrost in Chersky is ca. minus 10 degrees Celsius; at temperatures down to minus 40 degrees Celsius, the air is far colder. Thanks to ample snowfall, there is a thick layer of snow cover that insulates the ground from the frigid air, keeping it “warm.” When the snow cover is scattered and compressed thanks to the grazing animals’ stamping hooves, its insulating effect is dramatically reduced, intensifying the freezing of the permafrost. “This type of natural manipulation in ecosystems that are especially relevant for the climate system has barely been researched to date – but holds tremendous potential,” Beer says.

The long-term experiments conducted in Russia show that, when 100 animals are resettled in a 1 km2 area, they cut the mean snow cover height in half. Christian Beer and his colleagues wanted to determine what effect this could produce when applied to all Arctic permafrost soils as a whole. Could the animals’ influence, at least in theory, even be enough to mitigate intensive warming of the atmosphere and stop the thawing of the permafrost?

For the purposes of his study, Beer used a special climate model that can simulate such temperature processes on the land surface over the course of an entire year. The results show: if emissions continue to rise unchecked (scenario RCP 8.5 in the latest IPCC Assessment Report), we can expect to see a 3.8-degree Celsius increase in permafrost temperatures, which would cause half of all permafrost to thaw. In contrast, with animal herds the ground would only warm by ca. 2.1 degrees – 44 percent less, which would be enough to preserve 80 percent of the current soils, as the model shows.

“It may be utopian to imaging resettling wild animal herds in all the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere,” the Earth system expert concedes. “But the results indicate that using fewer animals would still produce a cooling effect. What we’ve shown here is a promising method for slowing the loss of our permanently frozen soils, and with it, the decomposition and release of the enormous carbon stockpiles they contain.”

Beer and his team also considered potential side effects of the approach. For example, in summer the animals destroy the cooling moss layer on the ground, which warms it additionally. This aspect was also taken into account in the simulations, but the positive impact of the snow effect in winter is several times greater. As a next step, Beer plans to collaborate with biologists, in order to investigate how the animals would actually spread across the landscape.


Original article: Beer C, Zimov N, Olofsson J, Porada P, Zimov S: Protection of Permafrost Soils from Thawing by Increasing Herbivore Density (2020); Scientific Reports


DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-60938-y

Pictures Pleistocene Park (free download):

Photo credit all pictures: Pleistocene Park

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March 17, 2020 10:07 am

Bring back the mammoths

Charles Higley
Reply to  Randy
March 17, 2020 5:29 pm

First off, the planet material in the permafrost must have had warm enough conditions, long, ago, to grow in the first place. That, in itself, indicates that the world was warmer in the past.

Meanwhile, studies of melted permafrost show that the life wakes up and the system becomes a carbon sink rather than a methane source. The vapid assumption that everything is bad taints everything some people touch.

March 17, 2020 10:08 am

What do we want? Global Warming! When do we want it? NOW!

Tommy Terroir
Reply to  Pameladragon
March 18, 2020 9:47 am

Any plan to capture their belches and farts?

Bryan A
March 17, 2020 10:12 am

Sounds like Russia needs to Force Employment on her people driving around large heavy compressors similar to roadwork Pavement Rollers. Just imagine the number of Green Jobs Russia could create having herds of Rollers driving all over the snowy countryside compressing the Snow into Ice

Pillage Idiot
Reply to  Bryan A
March 17, 2020 12:24 pm

I have an even better idea for those who support the Green New Deal and want to add jobs for mal-educated Millennials.

Send them up to ANWR in the winter and have them personally stomp around in the deep snow for four months to save the permafrost.

Pro tip: this idea will also be embraced the the Extinction Rebellion loonies because the worker outcomes will also match their goals!

Ron Long
March 17, 2020 10:21 am

I’m pretty sure polar bears and wolves are in favor of this idea (dinner is served!), but what a total nonsensical bunch of crap. The experiment was in NE Russia? Siberia? Utilizing “a special climate model”? Count me in the skeptic crowd on this one.

Reply to  Ron Long
March 17, 2020 12:54 pm

Ron, I did a word search for model on this page and didn’t bother to read the article when I discovered there was a “climate model” involved.


Reply to  Bob Tisdale
March 17, 2020 1:19 pm

“For the purposes of his study, Beer used a special climate model that can simulate such temperature processes on the land surface over the course of an entire year.”

Me, too!


Bryan A
Reply to  auto
March 17, 2020 2:33 pm

Count me in on that Special Beer Study

Ron Long
Reply to  Bryan A
March 17, 2020 4:11 pm

Internal hand sanitizer? Also, I just read an article that says type “O” blood has a 20% less chance of the COVID-19 taking hold, so I’m home free. Now if they would just re-open the golf course…

Bryan A
Reply to  Bryan A
March 18, 2020 5:20 am

If hand sanitizer needs to be 70% alcohol, sanitizing your insides would be easy…
Bring back Bacardi 151

D. J. Hawkins
March 17, 2020 10:23 am

At first glance, I’m assuming there is a reason the permafrost isn’t already teeming with herds of ungulates. How do you keep them alive through the winter?

Reply to  D. J. Hawkins
March 17, 2020 9:55 pm

In deep Siberia, domestic dairy cows may wear bras on their udders in winter to stop their teats from freezing and breaking off even while shedded. Diesel vehicles are also kept running as switching them off can be terminal, even while shedded.

Siberia desperately needs more cooling…

The first paragraph above is true.

Reply to  Centre-leftist
March 18, 2020 4:23 am

Domestic cattle are aurochs which is boreal, not an arctic species. They can’t even eat snow for water.

Bison, horses, saiga and muskox can survive on the tundra in winter. There were wild horses in northern Siberia as recently as a couple of thousand years ago.

However not 100 to a square kilometer, more like 1.

Reply to  D. J. Hawkins
March 18, 2020 1:09 am

‘At first glance, I’m assuming there is a reason the permafrost isn’t already teeming with herds of ungulates. How do you keep them alive through the winter?”

Probably was once before lots of people [and bows and arrows/firearms]

In Mongolia/Kazakhstan horses survive through winter on the steppes where it gets down to -40C, sometime -50C so they can manage it.
How ?
I don’t know.
They are somewhat tougher than I am

Reply to  GregK
March 18, 2020 1:31 am

I noticed when we had snow on the ground in the past that my ponies weren’t going in to their shed where the hay was and seemed to be coping happily outside but that was only for a few days at a time.
My understanding is that grazing animals survive in snow by scraping it away to get at vegetation underneath: if that is correct it would surely reduce any advantage gained by the trampling effect.

Reply to  Susan
March 18, 2020 4:27 am

Contrariwise. If there is any reinforcing effect on permafrost by grazing animals it is most likely through this scraping, not by trampling.

That is what mammoths mostly used those massive tusks for. They are unvariably heavily abraded on the lower side.

Mark A Luhman
Reply to  GregK
March 18, 2020 11:50 am

Wild Horse and domestic horses can survive those temps in North Dakota also, there are a lot of horses pasture in that state and temps of -40 to -50 F do happen in the winter.

Curious George
March 17, 2020 10:26 am

Save the permafrost! Without it, the world would end sooner than in 12 years.

March 17, 2020 10:44 am

My grandparents lived in northern Vermont, about ten mile from Canada. I helped them plant a Christmas tree several times. After shoveling away the three to four feet of snow the ground was soft and moist, easy to dig. Impossible with less than two feet.
They also had “Running Water” from a spring on a hill about 1000, feet away. They had running water all winter long. The pipe ran along the fence row down to the house. Not because it was the shortest distance, but because the cows would trod down the snow in the pasture between the spring and the house. Then the pipe would freeze. They also learned that they had to let the water trickle till after the first snow cover. Once the path was snow covered it did not freeze. The water also fed the water trough next to the barn. One of the neighboring farmers had a small ( 2″ pipe} water turbine that powered the barn and also essential necessities upon loss of electricity. Considering it ran 24/7/365 it probably provided more power than the typical home solar system, especially at that latitude.

March 17, 2020 11:07 am

Seems like a typical Urban Dweller Snowflake type of suggestion, not getting out much except to manicured Urban Parks, and not having much to do with animal husbandry of any kind…..they don’t realize just how big say Northern Canada’s permafrost regions are….and the impossibility of Mother Nature (or humans) having herds of animals in sufficient numbers to stomp down snowfalls.

March 17, 2020 11:07 am

The estimated area of permafrost is about 9 MILLION SQUARE MILES. That’s about 23,309,893 km2. @ 100 animals per km2, that requires 2.3 BILLION horses, bison, reindeer…...

Exactly what are those 2.3 billion animals going to eat out there on the tundra?

Bryan A
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 17, 2020 12:16 pm

Frosted Flakes
They’re Grrrrreat

Berndt Koch
Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 17, 2020 12:55 pm

So what is worse, greenhouse gases released from melting permafrost or greenhouse gasses released from 2.3 billion farting and burping animals? Or, more likely are both not a problem at all…

Actually this might solve a few more issues, just move all the dairy and meat farming to permafrost locations. Pre-frozen milk and beef ready for export! Then we can all go back to having burgers for breakfast lunch and dinner…

Reply to  Kip Hansen
March 17, 2020 2:19 pm

My exact thought as I was reading the article Kip. I was raised with livestock, take a number and stick them on a lot that’s to small for their number and it will be over grazed (in this case all the snow will be trod on and disturbed foraging). Take the same number of animals and stick them on a lot 10x as big and they’ll spread out greatly reducing the impact on land (snow). It would take huge herds to pull this off that very likely will destroy forage during the summer meaning they’ll need feeding by man 24/7 after a few years of destruction.

Joel O'Bryan
March 17, 2020 11:09 am

“As they do, large additional quantities of greenhouse gases could be released, accelerating climate change. ”

The word, “could” is key here… and it’s total bullschist. One only has to the examine the seasonal Arctic CO2 record from Barrow Alaska to see that during the summer growing season, when the permafrost is thawing, that there is a massive drawdown of CO2 taking place. And this Arctic summer sink rate is increasing over the years since the record began. If the thawing permafrost was becoming a significant CO2 source, that OBSERVED sink rate would be diminishing. Rather the opposite is likely occurring, the thawing permafrost is allowing more plant growth.

Here is actual data from CO2 observation from Barrow Alaska (71N).

comment image
Figure 8. The detrended seasonal cycle and the smoothed curve (red).

Which is described on this NOAA/ESRL page:

And here is the Barrow Station in peak summer with green grass growing around the monitoring station structures built on piers sunk deep into the thawed ground to the frozen permafrost layer.
comment image

And here is Caribou grazing nearby the Barrow Station:
comment image

And visited by very fat polar bears:
comment image

So all these researchers are doing is pandering to an urban-myth pseudoscience claim that thawing permafrost could become significant source of CO2 in the Arctic at some distant time in the future when none of us are around to remember their bogus claim. I say they are “pandering” because these Rentseekers are just using climate change scams as path to grant funding by riding the alarmist climate gravytrain.

Mark - Helsinki
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
March 17, 2020 12:37 pm

thanks Joel, you basically smashed the researchers claims here, and also I suspect their “special” climate model is yet another BOM – bollox output machine

Joel O'Bryan
March 17, 2020 11:11 am

My comment #comment-2940017 is stuck in moderation. Too many URL’s (5) I suppose.
Thanks in advance.


Al Miller
March 17, 2020 11:23 am

Wow, computer models, RCP 8.5. Sounds inspiring to me. (sarc)
All the above is assuming the nonsensical “AGW” is real – which it isn’t. It was openly stated by many (the list is long and well published) that the whole thing is a lie to enforce UN Agenda 21, Marxism and most importantly more more more money for the likes Al Gore. Christina Figueres is well known for stating it is about wealth redistribution for instance- no thanks Christina!

James Poulos
March 17, 2020 11:51 am

Asking for a friend:

Just how did all that biomass carbon come to be embedded in the permafrost anyway?

Bryan A
Reply to  James Poulos
March 17, 2020 12:22 pm

Used to be
Thawed Rains
The Invisible Mann

Shoki Kaneda
March 17, 2020 1:49 pm

What if we resettled climate activists in permafrost areas and provided incentives, like food deliveries and energy, to run around in the snow?

Reply to  Shoki Kaneda
March 17, 2020 2:36 pm

OK, but barefoot.

March 17, 2020 1:50 pm

What about all that farting.

March 17, 2020 2:48 pm

This looks like a member of the “Weird Ideas that might stimulate Grant Acquisition” Club. It is clearly a pseudoscience claim that thawing permafrost will be a significant and malevolent source of benign CO2

March 17, 2020 3:11 pm

As soon as all of these masses of ruminants are introduced to stop the warming, Greta will complain that all the methane they release is going to heat up the planet even faster… So the subsidies used to populate the regions will pale in comparison to the subsidies next used to remove them.

March 17, 2020 7:19 pm

Won’t all the meadow muffins the critters plop down darken the snow and cause it to melt faster?

I suppose they could get around that by passing a law that all cow patties must be white. Right there is 100s of thousands of green jobs employing people to spray paint the cow patties white.

Smart Rock
March 17, 2020 10:39 pm

RCP 8.5 again? and “special climate models”. Save me.

Plus, the idea behind this article has a bit of a flaw. Yes, those herbivores will trample down the snow and let the frost get well into the ground, freezing more permafrost. But those same herbivores, in the summer, will eat the tundra vegetation and trample down what they haven’t eaten. Exposing bare earth rather than tundra, absorbing the sun’s rays and helping to melt the permafrost. The vegetation has an insulating effect, plus it’s more reflective.

You can see this in northern Canada, where caribou migration trails, if they are constrained in a narrow belt, e.g. between two lakes, have destroyed the vegetation, and there are seeps of water coming from the melting permafrost along the track. It can take hundreds of years for the vegetation mat to grow back.

Not only is it not necessary, but it probably won’t work well enough to justify the effort.

Andrew Lale
March 18, 2020 1:08 am

Buffalo/Bison meat is outstanding, some say better than beef. This could be a huge win/win for Russia.

March 18, 2020 4:14 am

There might be something in this. This interglacial is exceptional since there are very few large grazing animals at high latitudes (they have been exterminated). Re-stocking tundras with horses and muskox would certainly change the vegetation quite a bit.

Whether it would affect CO2 is much more uncertain. The previous interglacial was about 10 C warmer for 10,000 years in the tundra areas of northeastern Siberia, with no noticeable effect on either CH4 or CO2.

Rich Lambert
March 18, 2020 9:47 am

They left out the Musk Oxen.

March 18, 2020 10:47 am

Sounds like a hoax. Russians pranksters showing how any study with the word climate change can get published in a western science journal.

March 18, 2020 10:51 am

Sounds like a hoax. Russian pranksters showing how any paper with the words ‘climate change’ can get published in a western science journal.

AK in VT
March 18, 2020 2:41 pm

First of all, why would anyone want permafrost? Here in Vermont we get rather sick of our frozen ground by the time mid-January rolls around. This has been a fantastic year so far as by mid-March I have turned over, dried and broken up a good size part of the veggie patches: peas and lettuce are going in this weekend!

Secondly, mammoths could not and did not live in Siberia. Not enough food for such a large animal in the winter. Its mass would have required so much food to keep it warm which the northern tundra would not have been able to supply sufficiently. As well, its trunk would freeze and fall off with those temperatures. The size of its stomach was large and the amount of energy needed to digest the quantities of food it would have to ingest in that climate just to keep warm would have been incredible enough (for digestion, that is). Food has been found in mammoths’ stomachs and it has never been vegetation found growing in Siberia (except grasses), but rather temperate to sub-tropical climates. The “wool” was really long hairs, not wool or fur, and would not have kept it warm: the hairs would also have frozen (especially at the feet) and matted as the huge beasts sweat and the sweat would freeze; balls and chunks of ice would have stuck between its toes (they are subungulates and have “toes” at the bottoms of their padded feet).

Despite fossils being found in the extreme north, they were not native to the north. Maybe they seasonally migrated from Asia and some got caught and froze. However, bacteria and microbes in their stomachs should have continued to digest any food remaining after they had frozen to death, yet we sometimes find food in their digestive tracts, especially the stomachs: the temperature needed to freeze the food fast enough to not be digested is well below anything ever recorded by mankind (as a refrigeration engineer). Still a mystery how they got there?

March 18, 2020 6:56 pm

Or, or, or they could notice that their temperature predictions, always based on RCP8.5, are two to three times higher than measured temperature trends, and adjust their predictions accordingly. Funny how they never seem to notice that.

The RCP8.5 scenario that all the studies like to use predicts 2.6–4.8° C warming by 2100, with a mean of 3.7° C. The measured 40-year trend suggests 1.3° C by 2100. It is far and away the least likely scenario, but they use it anyway

Stand back while we try SCIENCE for a change!

March 20, 2020 9:01 pm

Siberia is 13.1 million square kilometers, that’s a lot of horses.

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