Thawing permafrost poses some dangers | Polarjournal
Thawing permafrost in the tundra and lake landscape on the Taymir Peninsula. (Photo: Vladimir Melnik/ESA)

As the planet heats up due to global warming and climate change, the Arctic is warming faster than other places in the world. If the permafrost around the polar ice caps thaws, viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be released. The rapidly thawing permafrost could even lead to the release of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors and Cold War submarines, as well as other chemicals of concern. A new study warns of this.

Extent of permafrost for the Northern Hemisphere in 2018. This dataset contains permafrost extent data produced by the European Space Agency (ESA) Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Permafrost Project. (Graphic ESA)

It is estimated that thawing could result in the loss of up to two-thirds of the permafrost near the surface by 2100. This will lead to a large release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the Arctic, apart from the abrupt changes to the landscape.

“The Arctic cryosphere is collapsing, posing overlapping environmental risks. In particular, thawing permafrost threatens to release biological, chemical and radioactive materials that have been stored for tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years,” the study says.

Arctic permafrost ecosystem with potential hazard storage sites, detecting contaminants and microorganisms corresponding to specific soil horizons. (Graphic: ESA)

The research, conducted as part of the ‘ESA/Nasa Arctic Methane and Permafrost Challenge’, describes that permafrost at a depth of more than three metres is one of the few environments on Earth that has not been exposed to modern antibiotics. Over 100 different microorganisms have been found in the deep, antibiotic-resistant permafrost of Siberia. However, as thawing progresses, there is a risk that these bacteria will mix with the meltwater and form new antibiotic-resistant strains.

Over the past 70 years, more than 1,000 settlements have been built on the permafrost, which is at risk of pollution and increases the likelihood of accidental contact or release. “We consider the cascading natural and anthropogenic processes that may amplify the effects of these risks, as it is unclear whether highly adapted Arctic ecosystems have the resilience to cope with new stresses,” the research paper states.

Currently, Dr. Kimberley R. Miner also works as a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where she is involved in a project studying ongoing changes in the Arctic due to the rapid warming of climate change. “We’re trying to quantify what the changing Arctic means for both local and global ecosystems,” Dr. Miner said.

“It is important to understand the secondary and tertiary effects of these large-scale Earth changes such as permafrost thaw. While some of the hazards associated with the thawing of material up to a million years old have been identified and recorded, we are far from being able to accurately model and predict when and where they will occur. This research is critical,” said Kimberley R. Miner, lead author of the study.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Miner, K.R., D’Andrilli, J., Mackelprang, R. et al. Emergent biogeochemical risks from Arctic permafrost degradation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 809–819 (2021).

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