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Jan. 11, 2012

Grazing Towards a Cooler Climate

by Neil Wagner

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Which of the following statements is accurate, and which is outlandish?
  1. Letting animals graze in an arctic region as they did in the last ice age will keep permafrost frozen and lower the area’s temperature.
  2. Letting trees grow naturally in drought-riddled regions leads to more fertile soil.
ANSWER: All three answers sound outlandish, but (1) and (2) are believed to be true.
(1)

Russian physicist Sergey Zimov is populating a portion of Siberia with moose, reindeer and other animals that used to graze in the region during the last ice age. He believes grazing herds will keep the grass healthy, encouraging better growth. And by trampling snow, the herds will eliminate the blanket of insulation that would prompt the permafrost to melt. Additionally, Zimov is clearing out trees as part of his “back to the ice age” experiment. This will also encourage the area to cool a bit, since grass reflects more sunlight than trees.
 
At this point, the project seems to be working — temps in the area have dropped and the permafrost has remained stabile. This scheme prompts not only short term temperature drop, but long term as well, since prevention of permafrost thaw means potent greenhouse gases will remain locked in the frozen ground, rather than released into the atmosphere.
 
(2)
From a paper by the Congressional Hunger Center:
Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR), a set of practices farmers use to foster the growth of indigenous trees on agricultural land, has drawn substantial attention as a contributing factor to a trend of increasing vegetation greenness in the Republic of Niger…. FMNR raises household income and increases crop diversity, household migration rates, and the density and diversity of trees on farmland. It is estimated that FMNR raises the annual gross income of the region by between 17 and 21 million USD and has contributed an additional 900,000 to 1,000,000 trees to the local environment. These findings support the value of continued promotion of FMNR as an inexpensive means of enhancing rural livelihoods and an attractive alternative to reforestation efforts relying on tree planting.
Learn more about FMNR in this excerpt from “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth”
 
(3)
Unfortunately, “Rain follows the plow” was proven to be false, in part by a little thing called the Dust Bowl. When the great plains were being settled, it was believed that simply churning up the prarie to create farmland would lead to wetter conditions. In reality, removing the prarie’s natural vegetation, which had held the soil together during dry and windy spells, allowed soil to simply blow away.
So allowing nature to take its course leads to good growing conditions, while plowing unsuitable land does not. Boy, if I didn’t know better, I’d say nature knows what it’s doing.
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About Neil Wagner

Neil Wagner's What on Earth? comic strip uses humor to discuss global warming.

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