Latest Global Warming Threat: Mammoth Poop

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Global warming. It has many causes, primarily human burning of fossil fuels. But there are a number of factors that may add to it. For example, as polar ice caps melt, sunlight that would have once reflected away from the earth is now absorbed by the darker land and water underneath, making things even warmer. It's the global warming feedback loop.

Another such feedback loop is taking place as the once-frozen tundra at the top of the world begins to thaw. What used to live on the tundra? Mammoths. And they pooped. A lot. And that poop froze into eternally frozen poopsicles.

Until now.

That's right, as the tundra melts, all kinds of frozen bio-matter unfreezes with it, from mammoth poop...tons of dead animal bodies (remember those frozen mammoth steaks they sometimes find in the Arctic?) ancient plant materials. And when it thaws, it does what always happens to organic material that isn't frozen. Just think about what happens when your freezer defrosts during a long power outage. Bacteria attack and break the formerly frozen organic matter down, emitting carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2.

"Permafrost areas hold 500 billion tons of carbon, which can fast turn into greenhouse gases," said Mr. Sergei Zimov, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science's North Eastern Scientific station. By comparison, U.S. government statistics show that man emits about seven billion tons of carbon a year.

"There's quite a bit of truth in it," said Julian Murton, member of the International Permafrost Association. "The methane and carbon dioxide levels will increase as a result of permafrost degradation."

As the permafrost of the tundra melts, then, it releases still more greenhouse gases, raising the earth's temperature even more. The tundra has already begun to thaw at its southern limits, across Siberia, Europe, Canada, and Alaska.

And as the distinctive smell of methane (you know...farts) wafts southward, and the earth grows even warmer thanks to the woolly mammoths our ancestors may have helped to kill off, it may be that the mammoths will have the last laugh after all.





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