About twenty years ago, folks more often said global warming rather than climate change, but as we’ve realized that some places are going to be plagued by unusually cold weather and that overall, we’re seeing chaotic changes around the average temperature, using the phrase climate change just seemed to make more sense. While the overall planetary temperature may be going up fractions of a degree, some places will see 5-degree decreases while others see 4-degree increases.
The northern polar regions are one of the fastest-warming, and the effects of this warming are hazardous in ways I hadn’t realized. According to a new paper in Nature Climate Changethat was led by Kimberley Miner, the thawing of permafrost is going to release a whole lot of hazards we thought we had safely frozen away.
Folks have been discussing the release of viruses and bacteria from thawing cemeteries. There has been concern expressed that the revealed bodies of cave lions and wooly mammoths could bring biological dangers with their cute, fuzzy, frozen faces as they appear in the melting landscape. Now we realize that humans’ tendency to bury garbage brings a new concern: radiation. The U.S.’s Camp Century deposited nuclear waste from its power station into the ice, which is now retreating. A crashed B-52 carrying nuclear weapons left uranium and plutonium in a Greenland ice sheet. Both the U.S. and USSR conducted nuclear testing in the arctic
And the radiation is joined by heavy metals left from mining, with mercury, arsenic, nickel, and other pollutants now seeping out of the ice they were trapped within and into the soils and groundwater beneath. Pollutants from the past – DDT, PCBs and other toxins – that settled out of the atmosphere and into the now-melting snow are also present and getting concentrated as many decades of captured pollutants melt at once.
The melting permafrost is such an environmental catastrophe that I lack words to explain it. Study author Miner simply states: It’s absolutely critical to make sure that we do everything in our power to keep the permafrost — and generally the Arctic — frozen.
It may be too late, but if we can change the global industrial complex, somehow, maybe, maybe, we can put the brakes on this melting catastrophe. Maybe.
“Emergent biogeochemical risks from Arctic permafrost degradation,” Kimberley R. Miner et al., 2021 September 30, Nature Climate Change