As frozen soil thaws, prehistoric bacteria are coming back to life and converting woolly mammoth remains into greenhouse gases, which could cause global warming to spiral out of control
Scientists have been warning us about the potential catastrophe of melting Arctic ice for decades. But as the focus in the media shifted towards the debate whether climate change is real or not — a debate around a scientifically established fact, the actual repercussions of the melting ice went largely ignored. Now scientists have discovered a new threat underneath the ice, an inconspicuous ticking-time bomb — thawing ‘permafrost’.
Permafrost, as the name suggests, is a layer of frozen soil a thousand feet thick that covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere of our planet. For the first time in centuries, the Arctic permafrost is beginning to change rapidly. It’s warming up, causing large sections of the Arctic Tundra to diminish in size over the decades. But the effects of this great melt might not be catastrophic or grandiose, but a highly inconspicuous one — one that has been labeled as a biological ticking time-bomb!
Reporters from NPR went to The Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility in Fairbanks, Alaska to investigate the plausible biological ticking time-bomb, where they were given a special tour by Dr Thomas Douglas, a geochemist at the US Army Corps of Engineers. Douglas took the reporters to a shed in the middle of the ice, that was built over a tunnel in the permafrost by the Army in the 1960s.
According to the NPR report, the tunnel exposes the permafrost which has buried flora and fauna from thousands of years ago, buried intact. “All around are signs of extinct creatures. Tusks poke out of the ceiling and skulls stick up from the floor. But it’s the material between the bones that interests Douglas the most: the permafrost,” reports Michaeleen Doucleff for NPR.
The permafrost is packed with the remains of ancient life. From prehistoric grass and trees to woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, just about every creature that lived on the tundra over the past 100,000 years is buried and preserved down in the permafrost. Trapped in that frozen soil is twice as much carbon as is currently in our atmosphere. As the ice melts and the soil warms up, scientists worry that carbon could be released, furthering global warming, and in turn, further thawing the soil.
In fact, there’s more carbon in the permafrost — Douglas says to NPR — than all the carbon humans have spewed into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution — first with steam trains, then with coal plants, cars and planes. The big question Douglas and his team are trying to answer is this — what happens when the ice melts?
“They took the ice back to the lab and let it slowly come up to room temperature, then they looked for signs of life. A few days later, something started growing — slowly at first, but then like gangbusters,” reports NPR. “This is material that stayed frozen for 25,000 years,” Douglas says. “And given the right environmental conditions, it came back alive again vigorously.”
What actually came back to life turned out to be ancient bacteria. And once they warmed up and awoke from their long slumber, they were hungry! The bacteria started converting the carbon that’s in dead plants and animals into gases that cause climate change: carbon dioxide and methane. The experiment was conducted in a lab of course, but if you scale-up the effect across the entire stretch of the Arctic Tundra — across places like Canada, Greenland and Russia, the result could be catastrophic.
Last year, scientists started seeing signs of what happened in the lab on a larger scale in northern Alaska, where the temperature at some permafrost sites has risen by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We have evidence that Alaska has changed from being a net absorber of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to a net exporter of the gas back to the atmosphere,” NASA chemist Charles Miller told NPR.
The Thing: Melting #Siberian #permafrost reveals terrifying creatures https://t.co/IzvnOh636b Siberian unicorn –long believed to have died out 350,000 years ago– was actually still alive as recently as 29,000 years ago #well-preserved skull found in #Pavlodar region, #Kazakhstan
— Aethonaia (@Aethonaia) January 18, 2018
Toxic thaw syndrome: Melting permafrost is sending soil slumping into the sea—bringing nutrients and pollution with it. https://t.co/gTy3zuUeBH @hakaimagazine #permafrost #erosion (Photograph by Boris Radosavljevic/Alfred Wegener Institute) pic.twitter.com/VsMDeAANK4
— NSIDC News (@NSIDC) January 18, 2018
Scientists don’t have an estimate yet as to how much carbon will actually get released from thawing permafrost or how fast it will happen. A fair percentage of it will get washed into the ocean by erosion.
Some of the carbon will also get sucked back into the ground by new trees and plants popping up across the warming tundra. But once carbon begins to percolate up through the thawing soil, it could form a vicious cycle that can spiral out of control. The gas, coming from the ground, warms the Earth, which in turn causes more gas to be released and more warming to occur.
Recently, a team of scientists investigated the mass deaths of over 200,000 saiga antelopes in the steppes of Kazakhstan and all evidence pointed to the thawing permafrost and climate change. Mass animal die-offs are becoming increasingly common off late. Starfish, swallows, gazelles, bats, dolphins, whales — all around the world, more and more animals are dying in record numbers, and it might be a very small sign of things to come in the future.
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