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Permafrost: What Dangers Lie Beneath?

One gram of permafrost can harbor thousands of dormant microbe species. Some of these species could be new viruses or ancient ones for which humans lack immunity and cures, or diseases that society has eliminated, such as smallpox and Bubonic plague.

Now with global warming we have a new problem rising on the horizon as permafrost could release the next pandemic into the biosphere called planet earth. In 2016,more than 2000 Reindeer died over a hundred people in Siberia were hospitalized and 10 adults and a child’s death reported from complications from contracting anthrax from an infected reindeer carcass that had frozen 75 years earlier and become exposed when the permafrost thawed. Anthrax spores entered the soil and local water supply, and eventually the food supply. Most people are aware that a thawing permafrost layer can lead to severe impacts on people and the environment. For instance, as ice-filled permafrost thaws, it can turn thousands of acres into a mud slurry that cannot support the weight of the soil and vegetation above it. Infrastructure such as highways, roads, buildings, and pipes could be destroyed as permafrost thaws. This not only destroys private residences but entire towns have been threatened due to the thawing of permafrost.

Cracking and collapsing homes are a growing problem in cities such as Norilsk in northern Russia and Kivalina, a barrier island north of the Arctic Circle, is one of seventy-three Alaska Native villages threatened with destruction. Permafrost plays an essential role in the Arctic ecosystem by making the ground watertight and maintaining the vast network of wetlands and lakes across the Arctic tundra that provide habitat for animals and plants. Permafrost stops the decay of plant matter, which reduces the number of greenhouse gasses released each year. Around half of the world's organic carbon soil is found in tundra landscapes. Dead plant matter in other biomes is consumed by microbes during the process of decay. Considered an unique habitat, permafrost hosts a wide range of ancient viable cells, preserving microbial life such as bacteria, archaea, yeasts, cyanobacteria and protists, as well as microalgae and viruses.

There is even more to worry about than ancient bacteria. Because the Arctic has been covered by ice and permafrost for much of human history and was largely inaccessible, it was an ideal place to dump chemicals, biohazards, and even radioactive materials. When the permafrost thaws, “it starts to rot, it starts to decompose, and that's what's releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and this causes a domino effect of increased global warming faster thawing of permafrost more loss of land and higher sea levels including the increased acidification of the oceans, which brings acid rains that kill off more species, and lowers plant and animal diversity. According to a 2022 article in The Guardian by Linda Geddes “As global temperatures rise owing to climate change, it becomes more likely that viruses and bacteria locked up in glaciers and permafrost could reawaken and infect local wildlife, particularly as their range also shifts closer to the poles.”

Permafrost thaw contributes to a positive feedback loop that further accelerates the warming of Earth, releasing methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, directly into the atmosphere, and contributing to the spread of devastating Arctic wildfires. Eventually we will reach a tipping point where the permafrost loss will speed up and cause the globe to heat up far beyond 2 degrees celsius. Where this tipping point lies for runaway permafrost thaw is so uncertain that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t factor it into its reports for fear it may panic the general public. But research shows we might reach it sooner than we think. Permafrost accounts for 23 million square miles of the land surface inside and around the Arctic Circle. That’s around a quarter of the northern hemisphere’s landmass that is not under ice, including 85% of Alaska and around half of Canada and Russia. All of which could be gone in our lifetime.

According to COSMOS “A Nature review led by Northern Arizona University soil ecologist Ted Schuur calculated that if Arctic permafrost melts, a tenth of that carbon – 160 billion tons – might be released into the atmosphere between now and 2100. That first tranche of carbon could contribute up to a quarter of a degree of global warming on its own and “could have catastrophic global consequences”, says Max Holmes, a climate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts – especially when we are already close to pushing the planet beyond two degrees of warming. ”A world in which warming reaches 4°C above pre industrial levels, would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services. An increase of four degrees would empty half of the planet's underground reservoirs of water, making it extremely difficult yet to grow crops. Tower farming would be necessary for countries who could afford to build the infrastructure using abandoned buildings. Most people would have to grow their own food as a necessity to survive. Competition for the world's remaining arable land could lead China to invade Russia and the United States to invade Canada.

The Arctic Ocean would become ice-free for the first time in several million years. The West Antarctic ice sheet could collapse into the ocean, this would raise ocean levels by 15 to 20 feet or more. Coastal areas such as Boston, greater New York would flood, and the millions who live there would be forced inland; other cities that would be under water are St. Simons Georgia, New Jersey, Hampton Virginia. Revere Massachusetts, and Key Biscayne Florida to name a few. Land where crops can be grown would become scarcer, and mass starvation would be difficult to avoid. Higher temperatures would melt the permafrost in Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada, releasing hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gases that had been trapped inside by below-freezing temperatures for millions of years. Southern Europe could become so hot that those who live there would be turned into climate refugees.

Conditions could return to those of about 55 million years ago, when carbon dioxide levels topped 1,000 parts per million, oceans were acidic, and there were extremes of wet and dry. During that time, a massive die-off of sea creatures occurred. Scientists believe the die-off might have been the result of a huge eruption of a combination of methane and water loosened from the ocean depths. Even today, vast amounts of this substance remain trapped on the continental shelves underneath the oceans. Left unchecked, global warming could lead to mass extinctions. super-eruptions of underwater methane that would be 10,000 times as powerful as all of the world's nuclear weapons combined if we stay our present course, using fossil fuels to feed a growing appetite for energy--intensive lifestyles, we will soon have no choices but to make, except acceptance of our stupidity.

If vast amounts of greenhouse gasses under the frozen soil of the Arctic escape into the atmosphere, causing even more warming. The end result of runaway global warming is a frightening prospect. Higher water temperatures could release methane gas currently trapped on the ocean floor. The highly combustible gas could become a massive fireball that would be far more devastating than the most powerful nuclear bomb. Al Gore described another possible dire outcome in a column in the New York Times: ”Consider this tale of two planets. Earth and Venus are almost exactly the same size, and have almost exactly the same amount of carbon. The difference is that most of the carbon on Earth is in the ground—having been deposited there by various forms of life over the last 600 million years—and most of the carbon on Venus is in the atmosphere. As a result, while the average temperature on Earth is a pleasant 59 degrees, the average temperature on Venus is 867 degrees.”

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