Thawing permafrost could release radon | Polarjournal
Permafrost soil in Arctic Spitsbergen. (Photo: Heiner Kubny)

Climate change is melting the permafrost, causing valuable coastal areas to be lost or swamped. As the Earth’s climate warms, we are not only confronted with the release of greenhouse gases such as methane, but also with the release of radon, an invisible, insidious threat. This carcinogenic, colorless and odorless gas is produced by the radioactive decay of natural uranium in soils and rocks. And radon is associated with lung cancer.

Houses in the far north could be exposed to radon risks in the future as the climate warms and the protective barrier of the permafrost thaws. (Photo: Heiner Kubny)

Permafrost, which keeps the ground in the Arctic frozen all year round, prevents various gases from entering the atmosphere. The best known of these is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is released when permafrost thaws, thereby accelerating climate change. As a result, the ‘protective cover’ against rising gases is lost and radon is also released.

It is known that radon can penetrate buildings and thus poses a significant risk of lung cancer. In the UK, around 1,000 deaths from lung cancer are attributed to radon every year. In the USA, radon claims 21,000 lives every year and is the second most common cause of lung cancer. A recent article published in Earth-Science Reviews highlights the important but under-researched problem of radon migration in permafrost regions and emphasizes the urgent need for more comprehensive studies in the face of climate change.

Paul Glover: “A radon cloud can be a health hazard if it is not detected. Fortunately, all that is often needed is a simple installation of ventilation if the problem is detected”. (Photo: CBC)

Radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer

Paul Glover, professor and study author: “Smoking also increases radon-induced lung cancer rates by about 26 times, and smoking is up to 4.4 times more prevalent in Arctic communities. Consequently, an unexpected radon cloud could pose a dangerous health risk if not detected.”

To assess the dangers that could be associated with increasing permafrost thaw, Paul Glover and his colleagues modeled radon production and how the gas could flow through soil, permafrost and buildings.

The model confirmed that permafrost acts as a barrier, but ultimately also increases the concentration of radon trapped underneath by up to twelve times. It also showed that the thawing of permafrost in buildings with basements could lead to a dramatic and long-lasting increase in radon concentrations compared to background levels.

“If permafrost were stable, there would be no cause for concern. However, it is now well known that climate change is leading to significant permafrost thaw, with a 42 percent loss of permafrost expected in the Arctic circumpolar permafrost region by 2050,” Glover said.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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