Studying permafrost: Thaw could release bacteria and viruses; scientists alarmed

WION Web Team
New Delhi Published: Oct 25, 2021, 07:26 PM(IST)

Permafrost Photograph:( Twitter )

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Researchers are studying the frozen, now shapeshifting earth, known as permafrost. Permafrost, or the permanently frozen land, covers around 23 million square kilometres in the northern hemisphere

In the Arctic in Sweden's far north, about 10 kilometres, east of the tiny town of Abisko, global warming is happening three times faster than in the rest of the world.

Researchers are studying the frozen, now shapeshifting earth, known as permafrost. Permafrost, or the permanently frozen land, covers around 23 million square kilometres in the northern hemisphere. 

Most of the permafrost in the Arctic is up to a million years old. Usually, the deeper it is, the older it is. 

The study has revealed that rapidly thawing permafrost in the Arctic has the potential to release antibiotic-resistant bacteria, undiscovered viruses. It can also release radioactive waste from cold war nuclear reactors and submarines.

A distinct odour has been observed from hydrogen sulfide, sometimes known as swamp gas. However, the scientists are worried that another gas rising with it, which is, methane. 

Between carbon dioxide and methane, permafrost contains some 1,700 billion tonnes of organic carbon. This is almost twice the amount of carbon already present in the atmosphere.

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It has been discovered that the implications of waning permafrost could be much more widespread, with potential for the release of bacteria, unknown viruses, nuclear waste and radiation, and other chemicals of concern.

The research, which has been recently published in Nature Climate Change, describes how deep permafrost, at a depth of more than three meters, is one of the few environments on Earth that has not been exposed to modern antibiotics.

Over 100 diverse microorganisms in Siberia's deep permafrost are antibiotic-resistant. 

With this, there is potential for these bacteria to mix with meltwater. This will create new antibiotic-resistant strains.

Another risk includes the by-products of fossil fuels. This has been introduced into permafrost environments since the beginning of the industrial revolution. 

The Arctic contains natural metal deposits, including arsenic, mercury and nickel, which have been mined for decades. This has caused huge contamination from waste material across tens of millions of hectares.

There is also a major scope for transportation of pollutants, bacteria and viruses. 

Over 1000 settlements, including resource extraction, military and scientific projects, have been created on permafrost during the last 70 years. Combining the local populace increases the likelihood of accidental contact or release. 

Johansson, from Lund University's department of physical geography and ecosystem science, has said, "In this active layer, where measurements started in 1978, we have seen it become between seven and 13 centimetres (2.8 and 5 inches) thicker every decade."

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"This freezer that has kept plants frozen for thousands of years has stored the carbon that then can be released as the active layer gets thicker," she adds.

It is also feared that the Amazon tropical forest could turn into savannah or that the ice sheets atop Greenland and West Antarctica could melt entirely.

"If all the frozen carbon would be released, it would almost triple the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere," Gustaf Hugelius, from Stockholm University who specialises in the carbon cycles of permafrost, tells AFP.

"But that will never happen," he quickly adds. 

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