Scientists have just revealed that permafrost in Canada is melting much faster than previously thought, the latest overwhelming reminder that our planet is warming at an alarming rate.
The permafrost in Arctic Canada is melting 70 years ahead of schedule, according to a recently released study. Researchers collected data from several spots in Northern Canada, and deduced that several recent unusually warm summers had sped up the permafrost thawing in the region.
The scientists conducting the research were shocked by their findings. Many had visited the area a decade before, and found an icy Arctic landscape. Upon their recent return, they were astounded and dismayed to find so much thawed permafrost and new vegetation. One called it a “canary in a coal mine” that should serve as a warning to the rest of the world just how dire our situation is.
Remind Me Why This Is Really Bad?
Thawing permafrost is bad not just because it’s an indication that our planet is warming at dangerous rates, but also because it can release emissions into the air that will speed that climate crisis.
Permafrost is a general term for soil, rock and sediment that has been frozen for more than two consecutive years, but often, permafrost has been frozen for much, much longer. In places like Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, permafrost helps hold the landscape together. When it thaws, that landscape can become eroded, leading to consequences including deadly landslides, downed power lines, crumbled roads and bridges and buildings sinking into the ground.
What’s even more troublesome, though, is what the thawing can unearth. When permafrost warms, it releases carbon dioxide and methane, two of the greenhouse gases leading the charge in accelerating climate change. Earth is already facing dangerous consequences if temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But if that warming causes more permafrost to thaw, it could release double the amounts of carbon emissions already being released into the atmosphere, turning the climate crisis from deadly to ... even more deadly.
Other Things to Worry About With Thawing Permafrost
Did we mention it’s not just warming temperatures to worry about when permafrost thaws? There's also the potential for the spread of disease.
In 2016, a young Siberian boy died and at least eight others were infected after a heat wave triggered an anthrax outbreak. An unusually warm summer caused permafrost to thaw, releasing anthrax from an infected reindeer who had been frozen beneath the permafrost.
Biologists worry that other deadly diseases believed to be long gone, such as the bubonic plague, the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 and smallpox, could be released if permafrost unfreezes areas where infected corpses were buried. So far, this has been more of a theoretical concern than an actual one. But as the scientists studying the permafrost in Northern Canada recently learned, this warming planet comes with new surprises every day.
About the Author
Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.