Permafrost: a modern day Pandora's Box?


Stay Inside, Stay Inspired #2 We live in a time of constant human and industrial expansion. These activities release gas and emissions that are causing our climate to change. One result of a changing climate is melting permafrost. Some scientists have hypothesized that melting permafrost paired with human exploration of these zones could lead to the outbreak of potentially pathogenic viruses, similar to COVID19, within the next few decades. While we are all at home, let’s take this opportunity to learn more about the impact of human activity on permafrost, and the consequences of its slow melting.

Permafrost is melting 80 years early

Permafrost is ground, including rock or soil, with a temperature that remains at or below the freezing point of water 0 °C for two or more consecutive years. Permafrost covers around one fifth of the Earth. It is essentially located in Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and Canada. Despite GIEC climatic models predicting it would not happen before 2090, studies show permafrost has been melting. The extent of it is so alarming that scientists are estimating that the entire permafrost could melt by 2100.

Opportunist economies, but further danger for the climate  

Permafrost melting makes organic matter that had previously been trapped underground for thousands years available. This matter is degassed in the form of carbon dioxide or methane. Some countries, Russia for example, see the permafrost melting as an economic opportunity. They can now industrially mine the areas rich in precious metals, such as gold and diamonds.

But what is perceived as a potential economic boost means further danger for the climate. Permafrost contains 1700 billion tonnes of carbon, which is twice as much as present in the atmosphere. Degassing organic matter so that it can be extracted is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The mining of permafrost, accessible only because of climate change, will only serve to contribute further to global warming. Creating a vicious cycle.

Unknown consequences on human health

Permafrost is considered a ‘Pandora’s box’ because it could trap as much wealth as unknown deadly bacteria. Its melting could release organisms frozen since the last ice age, 12 000 years ago. The risk of release of potentially pathogenic viruses in the arctic areas is real, and has already been witnessed. In 2016, in Siberia, 70-year-old anthrax spores were released from a reindeer carcass after permafrost thawed. It caused the death of a child and infected thousands of reindeer. A total of four ancestral mega viruses have been discovered in melted permafrost samples. The major concern is that the discovered viruses have been released only from the first layers of permafrost. These viruses are the most recent and known to modern medicine. We have no idea what else could be coming from the depths.

How do we save the permafrost?

To prevent permafrost from melting each of us can make sure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by limiting our consumption and rethinking the way we travel, both on daily commutes and holidays. Industrial activity should also be reinvented to move away from the use of fossil fuels and limit emissions.

According to a study published in the Scientific report horses could reveal themselves as permafrost guardians. It implies that winter grazing and horse-travel would potentially compact the snow to sufficiently reduce heat transfers with the ground. This would reduce 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions due to permafrost melting.

Melting permafrost is raising concerns on the melting of other areas such as polar pack ice or land ice. Another consequence of the melting of these areas is the rise of floodwater as explained in a previous article.  To get a better understanding of the rise of ocean level, Surfrider Europe invites you to watch this episode of Climax.

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