A recent study conducted by scientists from the University of Oxford has suggested an alternative approach to combating climate change in the Arctic: an increase in the populations of bison, reindeer, and wild horses throughout the grazing lands.
The effects this rehabilitation would have on the Arctic are much like that of the woolly mammoth’s during the Pleistocene to the early Holocene epoch. Herds roaming the tundra would create even larger grasslands which would, in turn, preserve carbon and permafrost throughout by preventing tree growth.
At first, slowing the growth of trees may sound counterintuitive, but more tree species today are beginning to grow further north with the warming of the Arctic, breaking up the snow and permafrost that would otherwise reflect sunlight back into space. All grazing animals, alongside wolves, birds, rodents, and many other species, combine to create a natural geo-engineering team that directly affects their surrounding environment. With how scarce bison populations have been in recent decades, this has begun to sway in the opposite direction.
The basic principles of this concept are those of a grazing animal’s daily routine; scour the winter ground in search of vegetation, all while trampling and compacting the surrounding snow. By doing this, these species are effectively creating a larger surface area for incoming solar energy to be reflected back into space.
Of course, trees produce oxygen through the intake of carbon, but vast grasslands can actually capture even more carbon on a larger scale through the deep-rooted grass. This also allows for colder temperatures to be stored at much deeper levels in the soil, delaying permafrost melt and increasing the area’s natural air conditioning.
Some of the drawbacks of this approach include the scarcity of some of these larger mammals. As mentioned before, bison were once listed as endangered, but have since been upgraded to ‘near threatened,’ meaning, while population numbers are stable, they are still very low. Because of this, it would take a decent amount of time before enough bison could populate these areas to have such an impact on the environment. However, this is one of very few challenges with this strategy.
This research suggests that re-wilding could be extremely cost-effective when compared to traditional global warming strategies. Additionally, it opens the door for increased tourism, and more wild meat sources to reduce the demand for farmed beef; even more reasons today’s leaders should begin to entertain alternative more climate change combatants.