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Tracking the fate of ancient carbon in the Siberian Arctic | Ensia

Tracking the fate of ancient carbon in the Siberian Arctic | Ensia.

The Siberian Arctic is one of the most remote and pristine corners of the planet. During the brief summer season, temperatures can climb into the 90s Fahrenheit, and the seemingly endless expanse of boreal forest — or taiga — and tundra explodes with plant and animal life. Every summer since 2008, R. Max Holmes and colleagues from the Woods Hole Research Center have brought a growing international team of undergraduate and graduate students halfway around the world to the Northeast Science Station near Cherskiy, Siberia. The project, called Polaris, is designed to immerse students in the arctic environment and mentor them as they carry out their own original research on permafrost, the supposedly permanently frozen soil beneath their feet.

During the Pleistocene, about 2 million to 11,000 years ago, herds of mega-herbivores including mammoth and woolly rhinoceros grazed vast, fertile grasslands that stretched across the entire Arctic. Over thousands of years, the carbon-rich remains of this productive ecosystem were slowly compacted and frozen into the soil. The amount of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost soil is estimated to be 1,500 billion tons — more than double what is currently in our atmosphere or four times as much as all of the forests on Earth.

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