Russian oligarch to revive woolly mammoths in a real life Jurassic Park to stop Siberian permafrost melting

Russian oligarch to revive woolly mammoths in a real life Jurassic Park to stop Siberian permafrost melting
Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko plans to resurrect prehistoric woolly mammoths using ancient DNA in a real life version of Jurassic Park to pack snow in Siberia and stop Russia's permafrost from melting, which would release gigatons of methane into the atmosphere. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin December 4, 2023

Russian billionaire chemicals oligarch Andrey Melnichenko has a plan to resuscitate prehistoric woolly mammoths to the frozen wastes of Siberia and Yakutia to stop the permafrost melting, which would be a climate catastrophe.

In a real-life version of Jurassic Park, the Russian businessman proposes creating “Pleistocene Park” by using DNA from mammoths found frozen in the ice and recreating the beasts that roamed the region over 14,000 years ago.

Russia’s Arctic regions are heating at seven times the rate of the rest of the world, according to the latest Russian research, which threatens to thaw out the frozen tundra and which would release gigatonnes of CO2 and far more damaging methane gases that have been locked in the ice for millennia, with unpredictable consequences for the climate.

As bne IntelliNews reported in a cover story three years ago, Russia’s permafrost is melting, with the ground temperature already at minus 3C. Previously, the temperature was rising by 1C every decade, but due to a quirk of the way that global warming works, temperatures in the frozen north rise much faster than in the rest of the world and have been rapidly accelerating in the last few years. The permafrost could be completely gone in as little as the next decade, which would create an irreversible step-change in the climate warming dynamics.

The idea of bringing in large grazing animals to slow down the melting is not new and there have already been several projects to import existent cows, deer and elk to the region. Grazing animals roam the region and if there are enough of them, they pack down the snow with their hooves, which acts as insulation and prevents the ground from warming during the 11 months of snow cover across most of the taiga.

Melnichenko made his first fortune in banking in the 1990s, but switched to industry in the boom years of the noughties and is now the owner of Eurochem, a leading fertiliser producer, and SUEK, a coal mining company. Bloomberg estimates he is currently worth at $17bn, and has been placed on the sanctions lists, which he is disputing in court.

The oligarch has an extensive pavilion at COP28 in Dubai showcasing the Pleistocene Park and has joined a collective of other sanctioned oligarchs that are promoting climate change action.

During the next two weeks over 70,000 delegates and many thousands of Emirati residents will visit the sprawling venue hosting COP and have the chance to see a digital menagerie of Ice Age animals move through a springtime tundra on the screens of an immersive exhibit, Bloomberg reports. On entering the exhibit the digital mist clears, revealing mammoths, reindeer, wild horses and musk oxen, as well as lions and camels, roaming the steppe.

The Andrey Melnichenko Foundation is listed in COP28 as a “climate supporter” thanks to his sponsorship of the 160 square metre pavilion in the summit’s so-called Green Zone, adjacent to the Blue Zone that houses the negotiations by world leaders.

The scientists behind Pleistocene Park say grazing animals like Yakut horses and Kalmyk cows which already live in the region could foster plants that absorb more CO2 and reduce the heat sucked into the earth. Melnichenko has sponsored the transfer of 14 musk oxen to a 20-square km enclosure in the region and plans to expand its area tenfold in the coming years. However, to be truly effective the area needs to cover thousands of kilometres. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the park was working with US-based Colossal Laboratories and Biosciences, which plans to use frozen DNA to resurrect a woolly mammoth.

“The permafrost must remain frozen, whatever the cost,” a disembodied American-accented voice tells visitors to the pavilion, which is near stands belonging to IBM, PureHealth Holding and Microsoft Corp. A team of representatives flanks the exhibit, explaining the concept in Russian, Arabic and English to passers-by.

The idea of bringing livestock to pack down the snow and ice is not new and has been pioneered by scientist Sergey Zimov and his son, who live in Yakutia, and have been lobbying for support to bring in animals with little effect until now.

Permafrost covers 65% of Russia’s landmass and about a quarter of the northern landmass. Scientists say that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its thaw could eventually match or even exceed the European Union’s industrial emissions due to the sheer volume of decaying organic matter. In addition to the environmental damage the disappearing permafrost could do, the economic cost to Russia could run into the trillions of dollars. More than a dozen cities are located inside the permafrost region, where the buildings stand on piles driven into the ice during the short summer that will collapse if the ground thaws. In addition, thousands of kilometres of Russia’s oil and gas pipeline network that crisscross the country are similarly supported on piles in the ice that are in danger if a thaw happens.

The Mirny diamond mine in Yakutia has 11 months of winter a year and temperatures can fall to minus 50C in the coldest months of the year. All the buildings stand on piles driven into the ice during the short summer. photo: Ben Aris

Melnichenko heads the climate initiatives club for sanctioned Russian oligarchs and is due to speak at a COP28 event on December 5, leading a Russian panel on sustainability and climate change along with officials and Russian scientists, according to the programme.

He also wants to introduce a new system for BRICS+ nations to trade carbon quotas from nature-based solutions, a plan he says could be implemented at the 2024 BRICS+ summit that will be hosted by Russia, according to reports.

Melnichenko is a citizen of Russia as well as the United Arab Emirates, a status he gained before the war in Ukraine. He was sanctioned by the European Union and the US after appearing at a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin shortly after the war in Ukraine started.