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In Beringia

Searching the Arctic for a long-lost world of woolly mammoths and Giant sloths, a traveler discovers a new one disappearing fast

By Edward Readicker-Henderson | Illustrations by Aleks Sennwald

Musk OxenJust as the thaw of the last ice age changed Beringia, the new round of warming is changing it again. Last time it was the glaciers that melted; this time it's the very ice beneath the earth, the permafrost. We know what's happening, and we know why it's happening: a compounding of every plane I've taken to get up here, every light switch I've ever flipped on in my life. But the effect means that walking this landscape is like walking a scrim, present and past laid over each other, different worlds matching all too closely. The ancient one gone forever, the present one disappearing fast.

So very fast. The rise of the Bering Sea destroyed one world and is working hard on covering another; the effects of global warming might be more visible here than anywhere else on the planet. Already, the residents of Shishmaref, an Eskimo village off the north coast of the Seward Peninsula and a puddle jump from the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, have had to start packing up to move to the mainland, as rising seas chew away at their island—a move that experts estimate could cost up to $200 million. And Shishmaref is just the beginning, the poster child; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified 26 Alaskan communities that have erosion severe enough to require immediate government intervention.

The effects of climate change stretch beyond the coast and all across Beringia. A few years back, I had a chance to camp in Vuntut National Park, Canada's side of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, near the eastern edge of Beringia, with Gwich'in elders. (See "A Real Refuge," March/April 2006.) Hills rolled away, stretching forever; the valleys between filled with lambent light. The elders told stories of when the caribou herds were a mile wide. But for us, the caribou didn't show, and as we waited longer and longer, the stories stopped. After a while, nobody said much of anything at all.

Beringia today

Beringia 18,000 years ago
Beringia today (above) and 18,000 years ago (below). Melting glaciers and rising oceans expanded the Bering and Chukchi Seas and severed the terrestrial link between Asia and North America. | Maps by Michael Newhouse


Today, the musk oxen have moved up into the mountains, because it is simply too warm for them to be browsing the lowlands the way they normally would.

I drive north through the ox-less landscape. The official Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is north of Nome, but the road doesn't go anywhere near that far, and the only person willing to fly me out there wanted $25,000. Besides, as even a ranger at the preserve's office in Nome said, "without a geographic center of Beringia, we're as close to it as you're going to get." So really, any direction I go, I'm there.

Among scholars, Beringia is a surprisingly modern idea. The region's earliest explorers did notice that the two sides of the Bering Strait seemed to have a lot in common, and of course, the natives, who paddled back and forth across the waterway, already knew that. In the 1920s, Eric Hulten, who was studying plants in Kamchatka, started identifying species and mapping their locations. In the 1940s, David Hopkins did some of his own fieldwork and began putting the puzzle pieces together.

I sit on a whale rib bone, push up my sleeves in the sunshine, and stare into the slowly rising sea.

But it was University of Alaska paleobiologist Dale Guthrie who began to figure out what the original Beringia had been like and how it had changed. He studied the frozen gut contents of woolly mammoths preserved in Siberia and plant macrofossils from the molars of other megafauna and found that 75 percent of the animals' diets had been grass. Horses' molars showed that they had eaten 40 percent grass and 40 percent woody plants. In other words, they were grazers, and very little of what's there today is grazing territory.

Or, as Guthrie told me, "So I came up with this cockamamy idea that I couldn't get published." That an entire world had been replaced.

Guthrie coined the term that some academics use now for ancient Beringia: the "mammoth steppe." Continued analysis shows that there's no place like it on Earth anymore; that it was, according to Guthrie's book Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe, "a very complex amalgam of what we see today in quite separate communities, both on small and large scales."

For instance, in 1979, Guthrie got a chance to excavate the Alaskan equivalent of Herz's mammoth: Blue Babe, a preserved, vivianite-blue steppe bison exposed when a gold miner blasted away at a hillside with high-pressure water. Guthrie's necropsy showed that the bison had been killed by a lion, an animal that in the 1970s wasn't believed to have lived in Alaska. But the tooth marks couldn't have been from anything else. Blue Babe had been "taken down by the snout" and suffocated—which is what African lions do to buffalo even now.

While Guthrie has been digging up Beringia, a guy named Sergey Zimov has been trying to re-create the place on 10 square miles in the middle of Siberia. Never mind that he doesn't have any mammoths handy, that the steppe bison are long gone, that nobody has seen a giant ground sloth or a scimitar cat or a beaver the size of a coffee table in quite a while. He's doing the best he can, bringing musk oxen, bison, and yaks into Pleistocene Park. Eventually, he might even get his mammoth, or a reasonable facsimile, as Japanese scientists are trying to clone woolly mammoths with DNA from frozen carcasses and the eggs of modern elephants.

Zimov's challenge, said paleoecologist Mary Edwards, is that the once-dry steppe has become maritime tundra. "You look at a satellite photo now and see that lakes of all sizes dominate the nonglacial landscape," she said. "Change the ice sheets, and you change the rivers and fill up lakes. Tundra in the northern places is very wet. Water stays on the land, everything gets wetter, and that's not good for critters with tiny feet."

Even as the landscape is changing daily because of global warming, it remains "the last unspoiled stretch of our world, because humans never had much impact," according to David Klein, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks's Institute of Arctic Biology. "The changes in the Holocene [the Beringian melt period] were climate, which changed the animals, which changed the people," Klein said. Not the other way around.

Map by Michael Newhouse(2)

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