A Mammoth Enigma

During the depths of the last glaciation hundreds of Wooly Mammoths died and froze quickly sometimes with food in their mouths. The beasts became entombed in bogs that froze solid and remain frozen today in the East Siberian permafrost. (Image Wikipedia)

Why were there bogs in East Siberia during the depths of the last glaciation? And why has the permafrost not thawed during 10,000 years of Holocene interglacial?

That is the Mammoth Enigma.

In searching the internet for information to answer this enigma I was surprised to find little concrete data and that web sources on this subject are dominated by creationist views.

My initial interest on this topic was spawned by a TV documentary describing a remarkably well preserved specimen called Yuka with real Mammoth blood. Enter Stephen Spielberg with the script for Pleistocene Park. It does seem plausible that we see a mammoth clone one day.

Age dating (14C) of frozen mammoths reveals two distinct groupings, one centred around 40,000 years old and the other around 11,000 years old. 40,000 years ago the Earth was in the grip of the coldest spell of the last glaciation while 11,000 years ago marks roughly the beginning of the Holocene interglacial. The latter grouping therefore may have been subject to rapid climate change and thawing of ice everywhere, but it remains difficult to explain why the specimens froze and have remained frozen ever since.

The 40,000 year old group rings a bell since this corresponds to The Laschamp event that saw a brief but full reversal of Earth’s magnetic field. It also corresponds to the eruption of a super volcano in the bay of Naples, Italy. But I suspect these may be coincidental.

The ice ages still had seasons. And so I don’t have a great problem imagining summer melting and the formation of melt water ponds that may freeze at night and be covered in snow setting a mammoth trap. The mammoth enigma boils down to (or freezes down to as the case might be) why these creatures remained frozen for 40,000 years, especially the last 12,000 years of Holocene interglacial. Its almost as if the ice age never ended in east Siberia. And why the clustering of ages? Perhaps that mother of Vesuvius is not a coincidence after all. Could volcanic ash spread over ice have aided summer melting and the creation of mammoth traps?

I want to conclude with a look at this fascinating map showing the distribution of permafrost in the northern hemisphere. (Image source, click for large version). I want you to zero in on the line of latitude that is 50˚N. That is the line that clips Lands End, the southwestern extremity of England that is upside down on this projection. And also the line that is 60˚N. That is the line through the Shetland Islands off the N of Scotland. Follow that 10˚ band eastwards, to the left, through Denmark, southern Sweden the Baltic States and into Russia. That band is permafrost free, all the way to East Siberia. But then covered by permafrost all the way to Kamchatka, through the Aleutian Islands into Alaska and Canada.

This is a clear illustration of how thermohaline circulation distorts heat distribution in the northern hemisphere. The UK and NW Europe should be under ice but are not for the time being most likely because of The Gulf Stream that transports heat northwards deep into the N Atlantic and Arctic. The rotation of the Earth and prevailing atmospheric circulation today carries warm moist air over Europe into Russia maintaing ice free conditions. My hunch is that a significant change in both atmospheric and ocean circulation accounts for the shifts from glacial to interglacial conditions in Europe. Linking this in a quantitative way to orbital cycles remains elusive.

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37 Responses to A Mammoth Enigma

  1. Dave Rutledge says:

    Hi Euan,

    Great post. Very mysterious. I am hoping for the mammoth clone.


  2. Syndroma says:

    Pleistocene Park project always fascinates me. http://www.pleistocenepark.ru/en/
    There are some really nice diaries on their site, but only in Russian. Especially the diary about driving a truck with animals through East Siberian wilderness.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Pleistocene Park is a major initiative that includes an attempt to restore the mammoth steppe ecosystem, which was dominant in the Arctic in the late Pleistocene. The initiative requires replacement of the current unproductive northern ecosystems by highly productive pastures which have both a high animal density and a high rate of biocycling.

      This is highly confusing. Productive pasturelands in the Late Pleistocene and yet the mammoths were frozen and remain frozen today. It just doesn’t make sense.

      • Syndroma says:

        The goal of the project is to prove that Pleistocene megafauna went extinct not because of the climate change; and can flourish today if given chance. That’s the theory of the project originator, and he’ve spent the last 30 years living in the middle of nowhere to prove it.

        • Euan Mearns says:

          With about 50 glacial cycles in the last 3 million years it seems quite clear that the mega fauna could cope with rapid climate change. But it seems like the climate in East Siberia got worse during the interglacial.

          Figure 9 From Clive Best [3]. On this chart cold is up and warm is down, the present day is to the left. In black is the remarkable LR04 d18O record. Hence this chart shows long term cooling and increasing amplitude of glacial oscillation. In blue are variations in insolation due to orbital parameters. From 5.3 million years to 900,000 years ago, the 100,000 year oscillation is all but absent in the LR04 data which oscillates solely in response to the 41,000 year obliquity cycle. But since 900,000 years ago the 100,000 year cycle kicks in together with the 41,000 year cycle.


  3. Hugh Sharman says:

    Great post Euan! Those mammoths frozen while feeding 10,000 years ago have always fascinated me too. It must have been the original weather bomb! So what WAS the trajectory of the Gulf Stream during the last and seven (?) previous big freezes?

    May I wish you and all your other fans a Happy and Prosperous New Year?

  4. Tim E. says:

    Dr. Paul Laviolette has some interesting thoughts connecting Earth’s climate and the Solar system; amongst many other things. He has also been very interested in what is found in ice core samples. His work is of a controversial nature, and his thoughts and ideas are outside of the majority who believe in anthropomorphic climate change, evolution, and a static and otherwise dead Universe.

    One link, for the curious: http://etheric.com/predictions-part-i-astronomy-and-climatology/

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Tim, I remain unconvinced that the glacial terminations and resumption of glacial episodes is down to the small insolation changes that result from orbital cycles. But I may be wrong there. I think it is a mistake to assume that our 30 years of satellite and 200 or so years of telescope observations of the Sun capture all its moods.

      Cosmological impacts are possible, dust and cosmic rays are particularly interesting.

    • Bob Peckham says:

      I followed this link,( thanks to Tim), and found that P. Laviolette does indeed give a possible explanation. If I understand it a sudden increase in solar activity, including a coronal mass ejection, could cause a rapid melting on the surface of the ice sheet leading to the formation of lakes, and eventually sudden flooding. The leading edge of the flood is a wave which passes onto the plains and overwhelms the mammoth, with a mixture of cold water, ice and sediment, while the poor chap is eating. He explains it much better than I can in this video: http://vimeo.com/106060022 . If you can’t be bothered to watch the whole video, start at about 24 minutes in. You only have to watch it for about 2 minutes to realize that P. Laviolette is a very serious, and extremely knowledgeable scientist.

  5. Hans Erren says:

    You may contact Andre Bijkerk, who has been reporting this for years:

    • Hans: Thanks for the link. I’ve long had questions about what ice core d18O actually measures, but I think we can discount humidity on the grounds that the benthic stack records match the ice core records. Do you have any thoughts on this, Euan?

      • Euan Mearns says:

        In Vostok it is dD that is used to estimate T. I did a T v precipitation plot once on Vostok, like the one shown in this link and sent it to Petit who got back quite promptly to say that the precipitation model is used in determining T and so cannot be used – or something like that.

        I have to admit the physics of some of the ice core work is beyond me and I’ve tended to accept that workers have done a good job.

  6. E.J. Mohr says:

    One of the really interesting aspects of this conundrum is that we have very little data on what was happening on land during the long Ice Ages since most evidence was erased by ice. Here in southern British Columbia the thinking of Ice Age conditions seems to have gone from “buried under 2 miles of ice” to much colder than today, but with ice advances occurring sporadically during the coldest times. In other words western North America may have been much like Siberia – very cold compared to today, with tundra vegetation, but complete burial in ice may have only happened during the LGM.

    I wish I had some links to the data, but as I recall most of this work comes from palynology and chironomid midge data. In any event the take home message for me was that the Ice Ages are far more mysterious than I first thought when it seemed obvious that the Milankovitch forcing caused everything to happen like a well tuned clock.

    Another point of interest is that the tropical ocean temps may have been similar to today but the tropical freeze line was a kilometer lower than now. Why would the lapse rate have steepened so much? I suspect some kind of solar effect, but what?

    • Euan Mearns says:

      EJ, I’m really interested in what you have to say here:

      Another point of interest is that the tropical ocean temps may have been similar to today but the tropical freeze line was a kilometer lower than now. Why would the lapse rate have steepened so much?

      My understanding of how the CO2 greenhouse works is, very briefly, this:

      1) CO2 and other GHG sets up a temperature gradient through the troposphere
      2) That temperature gradient drives convection setting up the lapse rate
      3) The CO2 greenhouse works via a process of radiative transfer up through the troposphere centred on the 15 µm band
      4) The 15 µm band emits to space when the concentration of CO2 drops below a critical threshold

      5) Seen from space, the main CO2 emission is at -58˚C, equivalent to a height approximately of the tropopause
      6) This then leads to the notion that CO2 radiative transfer actually sets the height of the tropopause. Increase the ppm and the tropopause goes up and vice versa.

      And so when CO2 is eventually pumped down during the glaciations I think this may lower the tropopause. Steeper thermal gradient will lead to more vigorous convection and more stormy conditions. Storminess is enhanced by the greater thermal gradient from tropics to poles. This of course is the exact opposite of what were are told CO2 will do. My understanding is that during the Cretaceous, when CO2 was much higher, it was much more quiescent.

      I believe this would explain a lowering of the tropical freeze line – do you have source references for this?

      • Paul says:

        If the terrestrial temperature was 5 or 6C lower, then with an unchanged lapse rate of -6C/km the tropopause might be expected to be 1km lower. This *assumes* that the vertical thermal gradient is unchanged (unchanged lapse rate) but seems to fit with what was said above. Guessing the gradient between equator and poles I’ll leave to you, but you’d need some evidence to claim that it increased.

      • E.J. Mohr says:

        Euan you be pleased to know that I do have a source since this was a topic that fascinated Richard Lindzen and the paper is here:


      • E.J. Mohr says:

        I guess I should have had my first cup of coffee before writing anything.

        I was going to add that Ice Age climate, at least in the northern hemisphere and based on temperature variance as per Burroughs was likely far stormier than today. I think the US tornado belt would have been pushed south and tornadic storms would be far more powerful than today due to the huge temperature contrasts. Similarly Siberia would have had dangerous storms, perhaps explaining frozen mammoths.

        Just a couple of other notes. One is that there has been talk of solar UV having an effect on the atmosphere. More UV, if memory serves, would expand the atmosphere which increases drag on satellites. Also the jet streams move north. As for the CO2 tropopause idea, this seems plausible, although you’d think with the present rise of CO2 we’d be able to measure this, or at least compare todays tropopause vs the 1950’s. Is anyone looking into this?

      • E.J. Mohr says:

        Now that I’ve had a closer look at the Lindzen paper I see that in order to account for the CLIMAP ocean temperature data and the steepened lapse rate they had to reduce the “solar constant” by 3.1% to 4.6% to account for observations and inferred lapse rates. I don’t know how I missed that the first time I skimmed the paper.

        And so the plot thickens since this strongly hints that our star may indeed harbour surprises that fall way outside of observed data.

        • Euan Mearns says:

          A lot of new information just 23 years old 😉 I have a strong hunch this has more to do with spectral energy distribution from the Sun than total energy.

          • E.J. Mohr says:

            One thing is for certain, other than my embarrassment at missing Lindzen’s comment on the solar constant, and that is that the TSI numbers, if correct, dwarf any known changes in the solar cycle in the modern record and are far beyond anything calculated for Milankovitch forcing.

            If true these numbers put the Ice Age climate in sharp contrast to todays climate and indicate the sun may operate in two modes – todays benign invariant sun versus what may be an unpredictable nasty sun that explains the chaotic wild swings of the Ice Ages and the Dansgaard-Oescher and Heinrich events that would cause utter disaster today. It’s a sobering thought and certainly something that should be carefully studied. We need to know if this is the case, and how things may transpire. Data please …

  7. E.J. Mohr says:

    BTW there is an interesting book written by the late William Burroughs called; Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos.

    It’s a very good read and goes into some detail about the unbelievably chaotic climate system that reigned during the last ice age. Burroughs mentions the Mammoth Steppes and notes that even in the coldest periods the short summers supported abundant grasses, shrubs and dwarf trees. Also of note is that the variance in temperature, according to GISP2 data, dropped by a factor of five to ten when we entered the Holocene. In other words the Holocene is extraordinarily placid compared to what came before.

  8. Paul says:

    A lot of Siberia is high plateau – wouldn’t that go a long way to making it cold? Your permafrost chart shows it to be “mountains, highlands, ridges and plateaus” and the colour coding shows the Siberian (50-60 degrees) permafrost to be of a nature different from that in the Arctic and more like the Himalaya.

    Also peat bog tends to be anoxic, which prevents decomposition. So a mammoth falling into a bog might remain unfrozen, un-decayed for a long time before at some point freezing.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I think you are correct that relief and altitude have a role to play. But there are low areas in E Siberia that seem to be frozen. And high areas further west such as the Urals which are not.

  9. E.J. Mohr says:

    Siberia has enormous plateaus and vast lowlands. During the last Ice Age it was mostly unglaciated, as was Beringia, and much of the Yukon. Nevertheless the temperatures were far colder than today and therefore todays heavily forested taiga was instead a tundra, or Mammoth Steppe. The temperature data tell us that the brutally cold Ice Age climate would create permafrost that would penetrate deeper than today and would have expanded south of todays southern limit. The temperature variances during the Ice Age are so enormous, as to defy imagination, so life would have been very tough.

    Nevertheless the Pleistocene Park idea rests on the fact that the summer temperatures may have been close to todays warm temperatures even if the winters were far more bitter than anything known today, and this was very likely the case during DO events. In any event Siberia of today is still cold enough to support permafrost, even if the southern margins may be retreating, and the wild fluctuations of climate in the last Ice Age make it not unlikely that some mammoths may have been caught in the open during the passage of much more powerful Arctic fronts than we see today. Just imagine the much hyped “Polar Vortex” of last year here in North America but 10C to 14C colder.

  10. And why has the permafrost not thawed during 10,000 years of Holocene interglacial?

    Probably because it’s still cold up there 😉

  11. Hugh Spencer says:

    Maybe the the explanation for the snap-frozen (Birds-eye?) Mammoths, could be the collapse of the great N American inland ice-dammed lake, Lake Agassiz. The fresh water outflow from this into the Atlantic once the ice dam ruptured apparently stopped the ocean thermal conveyor and precipitated a very sudden ice age.


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