It’s 12,000 B.C. Modern humans are starting to migrate to the Americas for the first time. We won’t discover farming for another 2,000 years. We won’t build cities for another 9,000 years. As a species, our story is just beginning. In Siberia, another’s is coming to an end.
The mammoth steppe, one of the world’s most expansive ecosystems, is on the brink of collapse. For millennia, these arctic grasslands have played host to a variety of enormous plant-eating mammals, most notably the wooly mammoth. As a keystone species, the mammoths had long ensured environmental harmony. They kept the trees from multiplying, which allowed grass to grow in its place, sustaining all of the animals in the steppe.
But then, around 12,000 B.C., that changed. Rising global temperatures (a product of a receding ice age) and human activity rapidly drove down the populations of mammoths, triggering a domino effect that transformed the Siberian landscape. Trees, bushes, and shrubs proliferated in the mammoths’ absence, choking out the grasses that once sustained life there. As a result, the permafrost slowly began to thaw, releasing potent greenhouse gases that sped up global warming.
Now, 14,000 years later, scientists are faced with record-breaking global temperatures of humans’ own doing. And they’re realizing how valuable that ice age ecosystem was, and that we may be able to bring it back.
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