Permafrost, a frozen layer covering 25% of the northern hemisphere and locking in soil, microbes, and carbon is now melting. The world's arctic region is warming twice as fast as the global average and this is causing a major shock to the Arctic ecosystems. The rapid increase of permafrost melting speeds and temperatures is kickstarting new unpredictable behaviors, with consequences that scientist have not been too prepared for.
Some of these changes include; releasing microbes, plants, and carbon that have been under ice for thousands of years and uncovering potentially deadly and infectious viruses that have not yet been identified. What’s more, these melting ice sheets have been holding up roads and landscapes. The melting is also accelerating carbon release into a feedback loop that can soon spiral out of control.
Scientists involved in the research on the melting of the permafrost believe that it could possibly add up to 1.7 degrees to the warming of the planet, and that goes without the consideration of additional global warming factors. Robert Max Holmes, an earth systems scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center further discussed the mentioned impacts and consequences of the thawing of the permafrost.
The Threat of Carbon
Over twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is currently frozen in the permafrost. As the permafrost slowly rises in temperature, bacteria begin to consume the thawing carbon based matter and produce carbon dioxide. Additionally, the thawing matter also begins to rot, accelerating the release of methane and carbon dioxide. Moreover, The Environmental Research Letters conducted a study in 2014 that predicted a release of 120 gigatons of carbon by 2100. Nature Geoscience conducted another study that predicted an additional 1.69 degrees of warming due to the carbon released as the permafrost is melting by 2300, and Nature Climate Change published a study that projected a melting of an additional 1.5 square miles of permafrost with every 1 degree of warming. These predictions, although accompanied with a lot of assumptions and uncertainty, carry the same logic behind their conclusions: the warmer the atmosphere gets, the more permafrost will melt causing more warming to happen in the atmosphere.
Disease Outbreak from Ancient Microbes
Although not considered the biggest threat, it is still essential to think of the effect of frozen microbes on disease outbreak. 30,000 years old viruses and bacteria seeping into the groundwater can easily lead to an outbreak in diseases never encountered and cured by modern medicine.
72 people in Siberia suffered from an outbreak of anthrax, for example. The thawing of frozen animal carcuses that were infected with anthrax could have reintroduced disease to groundwater which people later drank.
Moreover, after carefully evaluating these newly discovered viruses in labs, it was noted that the average size of these ancient viruses is 30 times the average size of our current viruses. Scientist believe that it is unlikely for the newly appearing viruses to be infectious to humans, especially knowing that the studies samples have been taken out and thawed by scientists, and that these viruses are not crawling about the Russian tundra as some news reports might be indicating.
Permafrost is not as stable as it was once thought. Infrastructure built on top of permafrost has begun to bend, shift, sink, and cave. Almost half the volume of the permafrost is ice. As it begins to thaw, water begins to run down, creating changes to the landscape. The roads in Alaska are losing structure and warping off course as the ice beneath them melts. Furthermore, as witnessed in the Russian Arctic, buildings began to slump down, craters started to form, and roads began to warp. In fact, a crater that sunk up to 100 kilometers in Serbia was named "doorway to the underworld.”
Engineers are currently being forced to experiment with new techniques to ensure the stability of infrastructure such as removing excess heat from the permafrost with an underground water pipe. Furthermore, scientist involved in this research have set their missions towards understanding how the thawing permafrost affects the landscape now and in the future.
Possible Positive Impact
Although the melting of the permafrost does not hold too much of a positive outlook to it, scientists are able to use every new discovery as a lead into future solutions and natural rearrangements in ecosystems. The information obtained from the lab-thawed viruses can be the building blocks to our new and fresh understanding of the characteristics of viruses. Moreover, melting of the permafrost opens up new possibilities for farming in areas in Alaska that once were covered in Ice. Additionally the locals of the areas have mentioned their appreciation for their new found ability to build basements in their homes, according to Holmes.