Melting permafrost in the Arctic is unlocking diseases and warping the landscape

You can find evidence of a changing climate everywhere on Earth. But nowhere are the changes more dramatic than in the Arctic.

Our world’s northern polar region is warming twice as fast as the global average. And the consequences are easy to spot. On average, Arctic sea ice extent is shrinking every summer. The Greenland ice sheet is becoming unstable.

But perhaps most disturbing are the changes occurring underground in the permafrost. Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil that covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. It acts like a giant freezer, keeping microbes, carbon, and soil locked in place.

Now it’s melting. And things are getting weird and creepy: The ground warps, folds, and caves. Roadways built on top of permafrost have becoming wavy roller coasters through the tundra. And long-dormant microbes — some trapped in the ice for tens of thousands of years — are beginning to wake up, releasing equally ancient C02, and could potentially come to infect humans with deadly diseases.

A recent Arctic Council report says that 20 percent of the permafrost near the surface may melt by 2040. Already scientists have noticed permafrost temperatures slowly climbing. “In the 1980s, the temperature of permafrost in Alaska, Russia and other Arctic regions averaged to be almost 18°F,” the U.S. Geological Survey explained in 2015. “Now the average is just over 28°F.”

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