The Arctic region houses some of the coldest temperatures in the world. Located at the northernmost part of our planet, the area consists of the Arctic Ocean along with parts of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. In some cases, the harsh climate has caused an abrupt end to certain parts of our history. Civilizations frozen in time are suddenly awakening thanks in part to a fast melting region and a warming planet. In some areas where frozen layers exist, it is known as permafrost. Recent discoveries which have produced some startling finds in the Arctic have revealed what exactly those findings are.
Permafrost is permanently frozen layers of soil that stay in this constant state year round. While it’s true that the surface layer of permafrost thaws to an extent during warmer months, the layers beneath the surface, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, typically remain frozen. The frozen state has been helpful for humans, as it has locked in any naturally occurring resource such as carbon or other types of greenhouse gases. But, as the ominous threat of climate change looms, something is brewing beneath the Arctic and if released could have devastating human health consequences.
Scientists have come to determine that the largest mercury reservoirs can be found in the Arctic. To understand the soil that makes up permafrost and just how much mercury and carbon are hidden within it, numerous studies have been conducted around the world from Siberia to the Permafrost Tunnel, a massive tunnel used as a laboratory for research in Alaska.
What’s interesting about mercury reserves is the cycle it goes through, making its way throughout the earth’s atmosphere. Here’s a deeper look at how mercury gets around the world. Mercury has the unique ability to bind with organic materials usually found in the soil of permafrost. Through the binding process, it gets buried by sediment and thus the permafrost stage is set into motion. The mercury becomes locked. When the climate changes, it essentially thaws any soil layer and once melted, mercury is able to enter our waterways and eventually other ecosystems. Because of its structure once released into the atmosphere, mercury has the formidable ability to travel great distances while wreaking havoc on ecosystems sometimes thousands of miles away. Researchers for the American Geophysical Union found that within permafrost soil, roughly 15 million gallons of mercury existed. Virtually all soil tested in the northern region had significant levels of mercury.
Buried Beneath the Arctic
Permafrost makes for a stealth cover-up of things unknown or undiscovered. It has near perfect conditions for housing toxins and viruses simply because it has the ideal climate. With little to no oxygen and a dark and cold climate, permafrost is ideal for preserving agents that can easily become potent if disrupted and released into the atmosphere. A startling sleeping giant could be ancient viruses thought to be dormant, but very much alive buried beneath the surface.
In 2016, a remote section of Siberia near the Arctic Circle unknowingly became the victim of climate change when permafrost warmed considerably, thawing the soil and unleashing the powerful virus known as anthrax. The virus is thought to have infected a reindeer about 75 years ago. Upon death, the animal’s carcass froze and got buried beneath the sediment in what became permafrost. As the region warmed, the carcass did too, awakening the virus which then seeped into the local water and food supply making residents of the remote region extremely vulnerable. A twelve year-old boy died as a result. Certainly not an isolated case, scientists have uncovered corpses of people from the early 19th century which revealed fragments of the DNA of smallpox. Like out of a science fiction tale, it is not a matter of if other similar viruses could be released, but when.
Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who has studied permafrost for nearly 40 years recently co-authored a study in which he stated 15 percent of carbon stored in permafrost could be released by 2100 as a result of climate change. Even more troubling, NASA scientists were able to successfully revive bacteria that had previously been frozen in a pond for some 32,000 years. Climate change is real and making such threats all the more troubling.
Other Risks of Exposure
Despite recent findings of viruses and other pathogens, many have proved to not pose a real threat to humans. Yet, these discoveries alone begs the question: could we unknowingly revive pathogens that could devastate humans? While it’s unlikely, it certainly is cause for concern and climate change is not the only factor that compounds this already complex story.
Because Arctic ice sheets have been melting at a rapid pace, it has made once inaccessible areas of the region now easily accessible by boat. Industrial exploitation is now on the rise as a result, vying for natural resources that are being uncovered with drilling and mining. Beneath the permafrost lies a treasure trove of hydrocarbon and minerals -- hot commodities that corporations would love to exploit. The risks of awakening something harmful is so critical that scientists are now taking steps to demonstrate how profitability must not outweigh environmental health. Let’s hope we don’t read too soon of another outbreak released from the deep.