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Permafrost – permanently frozen land and soil – is thawing and releasing massive carbon and methane emissions, toxic mercury, and ancient diseases. Permafrost holds an estimated 15 billion tonnes of carbon.
“That’s about twice as much carbon in the atmosphere, and three times as much carbon than that stored in all the world’s forests”, says Sue Natali, a postdoctoral research fellow studying the effects of thawing permafrost due to climate change. She explains that between 30% and 70% of the permafrost may melt before 2100, depending on how effectively we respond to climate change. “The 70% is business as usual, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, and 30% is if we vastly reduce our fossil fuel emissions… Of the 30-70% that thaws, the carbon locked up in organic matter will begin to be broken down by microbes, they use it as fuel or energy, and they release it as CO2 or methane.” Around 10% of the carbon that does defrost will probably be released as CO2, amounting to 130-150 billion tonnes. That is equivalent to the current rate of total US emissions, every year until 2100.
“We are seeing a big increase in the thaw of permafrost”, confirms Emily Osborne, program manager for the Arctic Research Program, NOAA, and editor of the Arctic Report Card, an annual peer-reviewed environmental study of the Arctic. As a direct result of rising air temperatures, she says, the permafrost is thawing and “the landscape is physically crumbling as a result… things are changing so fast, and in ways that researchers hadn’t even anticipated.”
The 2017 Arctic Report Card pulled no punches: “Arctic shows no sign of returning to a reliably frozen region”.
The 2018 Arctic report card speculates that, “diseases like the Spanish flu, smallpox or the plague that have been wiped out might be frozen in the permafrost.” A French study in 2014 took a 30,000 year-old virus frozen within permafrost, and warmed it back up in the lab. It promptly came back to life, 300 centuries later.
"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," says evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France. "Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past."
For instance, scientists have discovered fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska's tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.
In a 2005 study, NASA scientists successfully revived bacteria that had been encased in a frozen pond in Alaska for 32,000 years. The microbes, called Carnobacterium pleistocenium, had been frozen since the Pleistocene period, when woolly mammoths still roamed the Earth. Once the ice melted, they began swimming around, seemingly unaffected. Scientists managed to revive an 8-million-year-old bacterium that had been lying dormant in ice, beneath the surface of a glacier in the Beacon and Mullins valleys of Antarctica. In the same study, bacteria were also revived from ice that was over 100,000 years old.
In a 2014 study, a team led by Claverie revived two viruses that had been trapped in Siberian permafrost for 30,000 years. Known as Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum, they are both "giant viruses", because unlike most viruses they are so big they can be seen under a regular microscope. They were discovered 100ft underground in coastal tundra. Once they were revived, the viruses quickly became infectious.
We could even see viruses from long-extinct hominin species like Neanderthals and Denisovans, both of which settled in Siberia and were riddled with various viral diseases. Remains of Neanderthals from 30-40,000 years ago have been spotted in Russia. Human populations have lived there, sickened and died for thousands of years.
"At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone," says Claverie. "However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations. If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster...The possibility that we could catch a virus from a long-extinct Neanderthal suggests that the idea that a virus could be 'eradicated' from the planet is wrong, and gives us a false sense of security...If the pathogen hasn't been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous."" says Claverie.
Mercury is also entering the food chain, thanks to thawing permafrost. The Arctic is home to the most mercury on the planet. The US Geological Survey estimates there’s a total of 1,656,000 tonnes of mercury trapped in polar ice and permafrost: roughly twice the global amount in all other soils, oceans, and atmosphere. Natali explains that, “mercury often binds up with organic material in places where you have high organic matter content… organism’s bodies don’t remove it, so it bio-accumulates up the food web. Permafrost is almost the perfect storm – you have a lot of mercury in permafrost, it is released into wetland systems, those are the right environment for organisms to take them up, and then [it] heads up the food web. That’s a concern for wildlife, people, and the commercial fishing industry.”
Osborne accepts that “the Arctic is greening”. But adds that, “warmer temperatures also increase the prevalence of viruses and disease, so we’re seeing a lot more caribou and reindeer becoming more sickly as a result of this warming climate… it is just not an environment that is suited to thrive at these warmer temperatures.”
Natali also says that many areas are experiencing “Tundra browning”: the higher temperatures lead surface water to evaporate into the atmosphere, causing plants to die off. Other areas are experiencing sudden flooding due to the ground collapsing. “It’s not happening in 2100 or 2050, it’s now”, says Natali. “You hear people say ‘we used to pick blueberries over there’, and you look over there and it’s a wetland.”