Waiting for the frost to fall

Frost on Dunedin’s Oval in 2020.  PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Frost on Dunedin’s Oval in 2020. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
In Siberia they like it to be a regular feature, Tom McKinlay would settle for an appearance.

I watched this doco online the other day, for breakfast. It must have been a Sunday, no paper. It felt pretty indulgent and probably upset the algorithms, who thought they knew every last thing about me by now. They’ll have spent the rest of week trying to work out what it means and deciding on the best sort of footwear advertising for that time of day should it happen again.

Good to keep them guessing.

Anyway, it was an Al Jazeera production, carried around the world on the hot winds of the desert.

It was about Siberia, where this Russian man, who looked and maybe even sounded a bit like a reincarnated Tolstoy, is trying to keeping the permafrost from thawing. Which is to say, save civilisation as we know it. Which Tolstoy had a crack at too of course, in his own way. He figured a hot mix of the Sermon on the Mount and Anarchism would do it. He was probably on to something.

So, big job, saving the permafrost. Herculean. Though the Russians will have adjectives of their own.

This particular Russian, geophysicist Sergey Zimov, thinks the way to do it is to return herbivores to Siberia in their millions. Preferably hundreds of millions, including mammoths.

The reason they’re not there now is because of us, Zimov says. Not newspaper readers especially, but humans. We overhunted the area back in the day, the larch forests took the opportunity of the relative absence of molars and took over. Now vast swathes of the Russian Arctic are biological desert, chock full of larch — the passive house cladding of preference everywhere — which supports very little in the way of megafauna.

Back before we started fixing pointy bits of flint to the end of larch branches, there were mammoths for Africa in Siberia. There’s no doubt about this now, because their remains are falling out of the permafrost as it thaws and slumps, like all your attempts at a pavlova.

There’s a scene in the documentary in which Zimov and son walk a short stretch of Arctic shoreline picking up armfuls of mammoth bone as the wet land behind them gives up its methane and folds into the sea.

There’s another in which a Siberian town is shown half digested by the thawing tundra. I might track down a postal address for the local council and send them a copy of the New Zealand Government’s new draft climate change national adaptation plan, comically entitled "Adapt and thrive".

Anyway, short documentary shorter, putting the herbivores back would help return the landscape to prairie pasture, which is lighter in colour so absorbs less heat in summer, and the trampling of said animals would allow the Arctic chill through the snow blanket to refreeze the permafrost in winter.

Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine means the international support for Zimov’s project is currently frozen.

Meanwhile, back in my back yard, I’ve been daily inspecting the small areas of lawn for signs of frost.

It doesn’t need to be permanent, ephemeral would be fine. Fleet frost.

There have been none, no signs, one of the upshots is that the grass continues to grow.

It could be that the extended growing season means more carbon is being fixed by my couple of hundred square metres of green space than would normally. Like in the courgettes, that continue to blossom. Maybe that can offset the release of methane at Sergey’s place. But I suspect the maths is off by a couple of decimal points.

According to a helpful man at Niwa, Dunedin would usually, which is to say on average, have had three frosts by the end of April, or so. We’ll have had none this year.

In fact, at the time of writing, daily minimum temperatures for the first week of May were not forecast to dip below double figures.

Tomorrow, I fully expect to stand, short-sleeved in the North East Valley Community Garden bathed in the golden glow of autumn’s flattering light, astonished once again by the beauty of the place, the colour and the warmth.

It’s meant to be pretty close to 20degC.

May in Dunedin has on average seven ground frosts, according to Niwa records, then June 13, close to half its mornings. July averages 16. More than half its mornings. Anyone remember a recent July when half the mornings involved a frost? Me neither. Not for any of the six years I was a junior partner in a paper run.

I don’t expect the solution is the return of megafauna to the Musselburgh weather station’s environs, from the Pleistocene or other places.

But I’m ready to be persuaded. Because very soon, actually right now, something big has to change. Something mammoth.


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