In the Arctic climate change is happening significantly faster than the global average. A study by AntarcticGlaciers.org says that the arctic could disappear within the next 500 years. The consequences are horrible, and have been described at length by Brian Resnick of Vox. Melting permafrost is releasing deadly pollutants, ancient diseases and creating massive deformities in the arctic terrain.
Permafrost is a mix of soil, sand and rocks that is held together by ice, frozen continuously throughout the year. Some ground in the Arctic has been continuously frozen for ten, thousands and even millions of years.
One thing that protects permafrost from the effects of climate change is peat. Peat is an accumulation of partly decomposed plants. Peat can be found on top of the permafrost lying around protecting the permafrost or can be found frozen in the permafrost. Peat acts as an insulator that protects permafrost from the rising temperatures. During the summer the thawed out peat has very low thermal conductivity, meaning heat can barely be transferred through it.
The top layer of the permafrost is called the active layer. This layer always thaws due to seasonal changes and it flourishes the ecosystem. Every year in the summer the active layer grows and more permafrost is melting due. Permafrost is melting so fast in the arctic that by the end of this century, 2.5 million square miles of permafrost, 40% of earth’s total, could disappear.
Problem 1: Pollutants and toxic substances
When permafrost melts it releases dangerous pollutants and toxic substances. There is an estimated amount of 1400 to 1600 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon and gases frozen in permafrost. That is more than double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere and three times as much carbon that is stored in all of the world’s forests.
Due to the extremely cold weather, plants and animals don’t fully decompose and permafrost acts like a giant freezer that stores those frozen organic carbon-based matter. When temperatures rise, the organic carbon-based matter rots and releases carbon dioxide.
An estimated 10% of the carbon and methane that does defrost will probably be released as carbon dioxide. That is 130-150 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the air.
The problem is the more methane and carbon released, the more warming, the more warming, the more carbon and methane released. It’s a deadly cycle and it is speeding up.
Carbon isn’t the only pollutant frozen in ice. A study published in Geophysical Research Letters said that the Arctic permafrost could contain around 15 million gallons of frozen mercury. That is twice the amount of mercury found in all other soil, the ocean, and the atmosphere combined. The problem here is that the mercury could leak into nearby rivers and eventually lead into the ocean. This could contaminate all sea life which native communities rely on for survival. Worse the mercury could spread and contaminate the oceans that humans rely so much on for food and survival. It’s not like the ocean isn’t already harmed enough. These are some of the ways mercury could harm human and animal life.
Problem 2: Ancient diseases
Throughout human history humans have lived alongside viruses and bacteria. There are many unknown viruses and diseases that we have yet to discover. The melting permafrost may unlock diseases we thought were gone as well as previously undiscovered diseases and bacteria.
Back in August 2016 a mysterious outbreak of Anthrax in Siberia sickened 72 people and killed a 12 year old boy. This town was in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. Health authorities were clueless on how anthrax had sickened people so far away from civilization and pointed the outbreak to an unusual source.
It turned out that climate change had thawed out the corpse of a 75-year-old dead reindeer. The exposed reindeer corps released the anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into nearby food supply. Then later transferring to humans in a nearby town located in a remote corner of the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. It had also spread to more than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby.
The threat of humans coming in contact with these ancient bacteria and viruses is low but still exists. Thawing permafrost may encourage excavation in the Arctic. Mining and other excavation projects will become more appealing as the region grows warmer and workers could be at risk of coming in contact with these ancient bacteria and viruses, also who else knows what is lurking down there.
Permafrost acts like a time machine. There is no limit on how long a disease or virus can survive. In some places permafrost is 1,000 meters deep, which according to genomics researcher Jean-Michel Claverie, makes it about a million-1.5 million years old. There may be some disease trapped in permafrost that we would never know about until it thaws out.
Problem 3: The arctic surface
Permafrost is what keeps the land together in some places in the arctic. When permafrost melts due to climate change in Alaska, roads and buildings are deforming and falling into the ground. In other places, craters, lakes, landslides and sinkholes are forming. In Siberia there is one crater so big they nicknamed it “the doorway to the underworld.” It is a kilometre long and 100 metres deep and it keeps on growing every year.
The problem here is that if all the permafrost melts, all civilizations living in areas where permafrost is near them would have to leave everything and move out cause their houses and towns will just be a pile of mud and an unstable ground.
Continued warming is all it takes for permafrost to release deadly pollutants, toxic substances, dangerous diseases and create massive craters and deformities in the arctic terrain. “We are destroying our earth everyday and we don’t even realize it,” said Lilah Williamson. “If we all help we can slow down permafrost from melting and creating these huge disasters.”
Cover image: Needpix.com, Michelle2214