Nightly News   |  December 30, 2011

As Siberian permafrost melts, methane seeps out

For thousands of years, permafrost has trapped Siberia's carbon-rich soil, a compost of Ice Age plant and animal remains. But global warming is melting the permafrost and exposing the soil, causing highly flammable methane to seep out. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.

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>>> the unusually warm weather this winter has people talking. but what if warmer weather itself could set off a catastrophic chain reaction releasing a massive cloud of dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? those gases have been frozen in the arctic for thousands of years, locked just underground in places like siberia. nbc's jim maceda traveled to one of the most remote spots on earth to find out more.

>> reporter: there is a ticking bomb in this vast remote land and sergei zimoff might be the man to disarm it. the russian geophysicist came tracking the call of the wild but after a while realized he was standing on a powder keg with vast amounts of highly flammable methane seeping from the earth below. more gas made since the industrial revolution . some a 500 billion tons. where is it all coming from? permafrost. for thousands of years it's trapped the carbon rich soil, a compost of ice age plant and animal remains. but global warming is melting the permafrost and exposing the soil. one result, bones of woolly mammoths and other animals once buried deep now cover this like a giant graveyard.

>> there are hundreds more like them all over the shore here.

>> reporter: as it melts the permafrost leaves behind scenes of utter destruction.

>> it's a huge bomb. it's a catastrophe for climate, for global agriculture.

>> reporter: u.s. scientists are taking notice. adam wolf, a princeton biologist who's worked in siberia said it could threaten the planet.

>> where the warming is so extreme that it's hard for us to really fathom.

>> reporter: unless this works. zimoff calls it his ploois seen park which sounds absurd. why not go back in time and recreate the very conditions that existed on the woolly mammoth . zimoff bought this land, shift herds of animals, bison and reindeer. with a four ton truck like a mammoth he knocked down trees and grasslands reappeared. the herds ate the grass and trampled the cold snow into the ground. temperatures fell and at least in this park the permafrost is now stable. science 101.

>> some say why not? it's the best idea.

>> can the experiment be scaled up to stop the bomb?

>> is it possible with proper investment? absolutely.

>> reporter: zimoff admits he's a wilderness nut who never set out to save civilization but it might work out that way.