Comfort Zones

Lake Baikal, Siberia Source: Jim Denevan

Lake Baikal, Siberia
Source: Jim Denevan

Research over many years has examined if and how the indigenous people of Siberia evolved to adapt to the extremely harsh winter climate there. Most evidence points to three major genetic adaptations that helped people survive and even thrive in average January temperatures of -25 °C (-13 °F).

The three genes – UCP1, ENPP7 and PRKG1 – influence bodily mechanisms that control, respectively, how body fat is metabolized into energy, how smooth muscles contract and blood vessels constrict with regards to shivering, and how the body metabolizes animal fat. The positive selection for these genes is evident at different levels in different segments of the indigenous Siberian population. Taken together, however, it’s clear that over 25,000 years of habitation in Siberia, humans there became better equipped to physically cope with the cold.

Which is to say, there is clear evidence that ‘modern’ humans have not stopped evolving.

In a somewhat related discussion, the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature has a project that looks at how global warming will affect Siberia, and what that will mean in terms of human adaptation. Siberia comprises almost 10% of Earth’s land mass, and with the environment there undergoing rapid change and known ecosystems developing in unpredictable ways, researchers are asking how indigenous locals are managing in their traditional lifestyles.

So far, the answers point to a less dire assessment than perhaps expected – one study said that it was much harder to adapt to the isolation and retreat of government support and health care that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union than it has been to deal with increased flooding and declining permafrost.

My conclusion is this: We can physically adapt, more or less, to environmental challenges by altering our habits, and given enough time, our bodies are supported by evolution. Wherever possible, we are good at finding work-around solutions.

What we don’t do as well with, at least in the short to medium term, is sudden and extreme social upheaval.

Lake Baikal, Siberia Source: Jim Denevan

Lake Baikal, Siberia
Source: Jim Denevan

Lake of Superlatives

Lake Baikal. Panorama of the Maloye Morye, Island of Olkhon, the Olkhonskiye Vorota Straits, and Mukhor Cove Image: Magic Baikal

Lake Baikal. Panorama of the Maloye Morye, Island of Olkhon, the Olkhonskiye Vorota Straits, and Mukhor Cove
Image: Magic Baikal

Deepest, largest, oldest – Lake Baikal in Siberia is unique. Formed an estimated 25 million years ago in an ancient rift valley, it holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater, more than all the North American Great Lakes combined. At 5,371 ft (1,637 m) deep, it is the deepest. It is 395.2 miles (636 km) long and home to 1700 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which don’t exist anywhere else. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Lake Baikal Map via

Lake Baikal
Map via

Lake Baikal has much to offer. One thing it will no longer have, however, is the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill.

Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill Image:

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has stated that the environmental concerns of the lake outweigh those of the paper mill, which was opened in the industrial heydey of the the mid 1960s. It is estimated that the process of shutting down the plant will take two years – the liquidation of plant waste will take 4-6 years. Future plans include developing the area for tourism.

Medvedev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.”It’s time to muster up the courage and make responsible decisions.”

Lake Baikal in winter Source: satorifoto via ILTWMT

More: article – Russia will spend $437.4 million closing down Baikal paper mill

AP article – Russia to close paper mill on Lake Baikal




Ancient Flow

Rouffignac Cave Mammoth drawing (copper etching) Via: Elfshot Gallery

Rouffignac Cave Mammoth drawing (copper etching)
Via: Elfshot Gallery

Revive & Restore, the de-extinction project of the Long Now Foundation, has proposed the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) as the initial animal to be brought back from the evolutionary beyond.

Some might think that the recent discovery of a fossilised woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) in Siberia could be an alternate choice. After all, its blood is still liquid after an possible 10,000 – 15,000 years spent in the permafrost, permanently frozen soil.

There is speculation that woolly mammoth blood might have cryoprotective features that helped the animal survive long winters by protecting cells or tissues from freezing. The blood samples have remained liquid at temperatures as low as -17 °C (1.4 °F).

Most animal blood, including that of humans, freezes at around -0.5 to -3 °C (31.1  – 26.6 °F). There are fish species in the Arctic that have been studied for the proteins that prevent their blood from freezing down to temperatures of -6 °C (23.1 °F).*

Woolly mammoths, then, would have exceeded these lower limits by a wide margin.

It’s one thing to find a fossil of unexpected extinct life (the giant Arctic camel, for example), it’s quite another to find blood and tissue of a long-extinct animal. Other samples of woolly mammoth tissue have been found before – this latest is the most intact thus far.

Still, this discovery means that cloning a mammoth is only a slightly less remote impossibility than before because of the likely degradation of the blood cells and DNA.

Another revelation with receding glaciers and permafrost: the revival of plant ecosystems that were dormant under centuries of ice. I’ll write about this tomorrow.

Broken Ice
Photo: Seagirl via Photobucket

*According a article: “The research was funded by Volkswagen, who no doubt want to find better ways of anti-freezing their cars. The natural proteins found in the fish perform far better than man-made antifreezes, which bond directly with water molecules to lower the freezing point. The proteins don’t need to bond. Their mere presence is enough to slow freezing.”


LiveScience articleDespite Mammoth Blood Discovery, Cloning Still Unlikely by Tia Ghose