How horses can help save the planet from climate change

Last year was the second hottest ever recorded. While politicians and pundits continue to debate the legitimacy of manmade climate change, things are undeniably heating up on planet Earth. We can all do our part to help the environment, but a novel new study out of Europe is suggesting a way for horses to get involved as well.

First, let’s dive into some background. The arctic permafrost, or permanently frozen soil containing tons of greenhouse gases, is thawing at an increasingly accelerated rate. As the permafrost melts, it is constantly releasing more and more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. That’s bad.

Luckily, a group of scientists in Russia has a solution that can bring horses and any number of other large herbivores into the fight against climate change. If massive herds of these animals can be successfully resettled on lands containing thawing permafrost, their grazing activities and stamping hooves can help cool down and protect the permafrost from rising temperatures above ground.

It sounds far-fetched, but scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov has already demonstrated that this strategy works in northeastern Russia. Over 20 years ago, they resettled herds of bison, wisents, horses, and reindeer to that area and have been closely tracking the animals’ impact on the surrounding soil ever since. The winter is quite cold in northeastern Russia; temperatures regularly reach -40 degrees Fahrenheit. However, due to near-constant snowfall, the local permafrost is comparatively “warmer” at a balmy 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow acts as an insulator, blocking the permafrost from the much colder temperatures above ground level.

It’s a bit confusing to wrap one’s mind around, but when it comes to permafrost, heavy amounts of snow actually accelerate the thawing process.

Thanks to the constant grazing and massive hooves of the area’s new residents, however, that snow is constantly being moved around, scattered, and compressed. This largely eliminates the snow’s insulating effects, allowing the colder air to reach and intensify the freezing of the local permafrost. 

“This type of natural manipulation in ecosystems that are especially relevant for the climate system has barely been researched to date – but holds tremendous potential,” comments Prof. Christian Beer from the University of Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability. 

Professor Beer is this study’s main author and an expert on permafrost found across the Northern Hemisphere. He believes, in theory, that if this approach were carried out across Arctic permafrost areas, 80% of all permafrost soils could be preserved for the next 80 years. Conversely, if no action is taken half of the entire planet’s permafrost will be gone by the year 2100.

According to the initial experiment in Russia, 100 resettled horses within a .4 square mile area would cut the average amount of snow on the ground in half. So, to determine how effective this approach would be on the entire Arctic permafrost, Beer and his team used a complex climate model that predicted and simulated temperatures in those areas over a full year.

They concluded that if emissions continue to rise as they are now, permafrost temperatures will increase globally by a staggering 38.83 degrees Fahrenheit. That would cause half of all permafrost to thaw. However, if horses and other animals populated these areas, it would slow the rate of heating enough to save 80% of current permafrost areas.

“It may be utopian to imaging resettling wild animal herds in all the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere,” Professor Beer says in a press release. “But the results indicate that using fewer animals would still produce a cooling effect. What we’ve shown here is a promising method for slowing the loss of our permanently frozen soils, and with it, the decomposition and release of the enormous carbon stockpiles they contain.”

As Professor Beer admits himself, this strategy probably won’t be realized to the extent envisioned in this research, but it just goes to show that all living creatures on this planet can play a role in correcting climate change.

The full study can be found here, published in Scientific Reports.