Permafrost hides more than just bones

Apart from the odd wooly mammoth and saber-tooth tiger there have been a heightened number of findings of frozen bacteria and now obsolete diseases such as Anthrax, smallpox, the plague and old strains of ‘Spanish flue.’

Permafrost is ideal for breeding and storing bacteria as it is below freezing in temperature, dark and damp. Bacteria can lay dormant like the common cockroach and when thawed it awakens. In theory, these once deadly diseases can breed and spread once again. Diseases like smallpox and the bubonic plague once wiped out millions of people throughout the globe. Should we be concerned about more than just the methane and carbon escaping from the permafrost? 

Found under a layer of soil, permafrost can be from three feet to 4,900 feet thick. It stores the carbon-based remains of plants and animals that froze before they could decompose. Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds 1,500 billion tons of carbon, almost double the amount of carbon that is currently in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, when permafrost warms and thaws, it releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As the global thermostat rises, permafrost, rather than storing carbon, could become a significant source of planet-heating emissions.

2017 study estimated that if global temperatures rise 1.5˚C above 1861 levels, thawing permafrost could release 68 to 508 gigatons of carbon. Without factoring in human activity, this carbon alone would increase global temperatures 0.13 to1.69˚C by 2300. Since we may have already locked in 1.5˚C of warming above pre-industrial levels, this amount of additional warming could result in catastrophic impacts of climate change.

MARLENE CIMONS MARCH 6, 2020, PUBLISHED IN POPULAR SCIENCE • CLEAN TECHNICA wrote an article about an outbreak of Anthrax in a secluded village, killing one young boy and making many others very sick. A reindeer that had died became buried in the permafrost. Climate change caused the permafrost to thaw, exposing the decomposing reindeer to the surface. The local scientists that completed tests on it found the creature had died of Anthrax and its thawing caucus had infected the river and local water supply. The incident was isolated and thankfully only one death was the outcome. But scientists are now expecting a potential problem throughout the planet’s melting permafrost. 

Harry Cockburn, (2020) from the Independant writes, “This is a recipe for disaster because you have humans here and you have the germ when it is fresh. When diseases are discharged from the permafrost in nature, what happens? They fall into the river. It exposes them to oxygen, which is bad for viruses. It exposed them to light, which is also bad for viruses. And so it will not revive them for any lengthy time. 

People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries, so it is conceivable that they could unleash other infectious agents.

In a 2011 study, Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya wrote: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

NASA scientists successfully revived bacteria that had been encased in a frozen pond in Alaska for 32,000 years

For instance, in the 1890s there was a major epidemic of smallpox in Siberia. One town lost up to 40% of its population. Their bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost on the banks of the Kolyma River. 120 years later, Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks, and the melting of the permafrost has speeded up this erosion process.

In a project that began in the 1990s, scientists from the State

They estimate that there are 1,700 gigatons of carbon in the permafrost around the world. There are also billions of tonnes of methane in these thousands of years old organic matter in our planet’s soil. Scientist proposes that the thawing will be widespread throughout the globe. If we cannot stop this process, then we are going to have twice the extent of the pollution problem. Once pandora’s box is open, there is no closing it. We will have no control at all over the ultimate future atmosphere of our planet.

The scientists report that if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise as they are now, the thawing of the permafrost and losing the ice caps could release 1,700 billion metric tons of carbon now locked in as frozen organic matter.

Russian scientists Sergey Zimov and Nikita Zimov — they’re a father-son duo — believe they can slow the thawing of the Siberian permafrost by bringing back grazing animals to a swath of land called Pleistocene Park.

Siberia’s melting permafrost has enormous implications for the Earth’s climate.

In some sectors of Siberia, permafrost extends 5,000 feet below the surface. It comprises enormous volumes of carbon dioxide and methane. We believe the primary 3 feet alone to contain twice as much carbon as already in the Earth’s climate. As the carbon and methane release over the coming decades, an expert’s voice it could spell climate catastrophe.

Nikita Zimov believes he knows how to thwart that. “There is only one theoretical chance to prevent that from happening. We must restore the Ice Age ecosystem,” he says.

Pleistocene Park lies in a remote and desolate corner of Siberia, a couple of hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Wintertime temperatures average around 17 degrees below zero. During the Ice Age, millions of animals roamed this territory. Back then, the Zimov say, herds of bison, musk ox, reindeer, moose and woolly mammoths compacted the snow in the wintertime, which lowered the permafrost temperature.

Today, in the wintertime, a meter-thick layer of fluffy snow, which acts much like a down comforter that insulates the ground from the cold air, covers the ground. So the Zimov have begun the process of restoration by bringing in climate-adapted species, like stocky Yakutian horses, musk ox, wisent and European bison.

“When animals trample down the snow, they actually thin that layer of snow, making it dense, and this allows much deeper freezing during winter,” he explains.

Although the Zimov’ research is still ongoing, early comparisons of soil temperatures below the compacted snow and ungrazed terrain indicate that trampling does cool the ground. Other research supports the basic idea.

Some scientists, such as Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at Northern Arizona University, worry that putting grazing animals back on the landscape might have unanticipated effects, however.

“Animals would also be there in the summer, and another effect of increasing your animals is that they might disturb the moss and soil organic layer that exists on top of the active layer,” Schuur says. “In the summer, that has a sort of the opposite effect: If you disturb the surface layer, it actually exposes the permafrost to warm summer temperatures.”

The Zimov have an answer for this: The summer is three months long, and the winter is nine months long, and the winter is colder than the summer is warm. So, the effect of removing winter snow is greater than the effect of removing summer insulation, which will keep the temperature of permafrost lower and more stable.

The Zimov also hope that the part of the permafrost known as the “active layer,” just underneath the moss, will create another climate-friendly outcome to their experiment. Grazing animals will stimulate the growth of grasses that take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and return it to the soil.

Yakutian horses, musk ox, and bison graze on the lush summer grasses at Pleistocene Park. Credit: Pleistocene Park.

When a horse or a bison or a mammoth eats a blade of grass, it quickly digests it and returns it to the landscape as urine or feces, which fertilizes the plants and stimulates additional growth. When they roamed the vast steppes, mammoths contributed a lot of fertilizer. Their elephant cousins produce over 100 pounds of manure a day. Efforts are underway to bring back the woolly mammoth through genetic engineering, but Sergey Zimov wants to proceed with or without it. Nikita Zimov feels the same.

“I don’t care whether it has five legs or six legs. I just care that it eats the grass, cycles nutrients, reproduces and can survive an Arctic winter,” Nikita Zimov told a filmmaker who is documenting the Pleistocene Park project.

Another thing that works? An old Soviet army tank! Nikita Zimov drives it around, and its caterpillar treads flatten the snow and snap young larch trees, simulating the heavy footsteps of the huge woolly mammoths that once ruled this land.

Over time, the conditions in Pleistocene Park will spread across Arctic Siberia and into North America, helping to slow the thawing of permafrost across a wide band of the Earth.

“We’ve been hearing talk about global warming for decades, but still the problem gets only worse,” Nikita Zimov says. “In the place where I live, change has become clear to everybody. We are rapidly approaching a tipping point when warming becomes unstoppable. It is too late to wait for someone else to deal with it. We must take actions now.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Recently scientists have released how little they knew about permafrost. 1,035 billion tons of organic carbon is stored in the upper three metres of the soil in the artic. Should this carbon escape it would e enough the overwhelm our ability to control global temperatures?

During a 32 week controlled environment experts determined that the permafrost from Lapland discharged enormous volumes of carbon peaking at first. Later it slowed down. It appeared to not release methane in any abundance, and in a dry condition they could use the methane permafrost as a dry sink. This is an extremely significant discovery and could encourage many populationsq1a in the future with climate change crisis.

The Himalayan region is home to one of the greatest frozen water reserves on the planet. Much is still unexplained about the capacity of carbon that is expected to be discharged from this area. There is apprehension over Pakistan, China and Indias ongoing volatile relationship. With global warming, heating the earth as fast as it is and causing the ice to thaw, by 2039 there will be no ice coverage during the artic summers, and the frozen reservoirs of our planet will thaw as well. In the future, water will be expensive and scant,. Reserves like this all over the earth will be in extreme demand, and the nations that have access to them will have substantial power.

In 2018 NASA financed a larger research with scientist ‘Schaefer’ and colleague’s leading it. They discovered that if we could not reach the agreed atmospheric condition through the Paris Agreement, then we could have a global crisis on our hands. Climate change is causing more C02 which is speeding up the natural thawing process of the permafrost in the artic.

The Northern Hemisphere landmass contains a quarter of the planet’s permafrost. Alaska holds 793 gigagrams of mercury within this permafrost, which is released every year when the permafrost temporarily thaws during the summers months. The first three metres of frozen soil holds twice more mercury than the oceans and planet’s atmosphere put together.

The researched projections showed that 30-99% of the permafrost could be thawed by 2100 causing much of the mercury to become mobile in the earth’s atmosphere leading to the pollution of the earth’s water and then marine life.

This would find its way into the human food chain, causing a considerable problem. Science struggles to predict accurately the outcome probability as climate change will affect the atmosphere’s water density and C02. Which will have a knock on affect of the melting of the ice, causing sea and river levels to rise and in some parts of the planet to dry out.. All of which will affect the speed at which the permafrost melts and how long it will stay thawed. If the permafrost stays permanently melted, then the disaster would last for centuries. 

The Science Daily (Sep 2020) writes that the ‘Yukon’ river fish could surpass EPA criteria by 2050.. The annual atmosphere and thawing of the permafrost in the future compared to current global anthropogenic mercury conditions will increase thanks to higher carbon emissions.

Fig. 1: A schematic of our terrestrial mercury (Hg) model.


The soil extends down to 15 meters with an active layer that thaws in summer and refreezes in winter. The organic carbon and Hg extend down to three meters. Hg deposits onto the surface from the atmosphere and bonds to plant and soil organic matter. As organic matter decays, elemental mercury (Hg0) is released into the atmosphere, some mercury cation (HgII) is exported into rivers, and the remaining HgII is recycled back into the organic matter. We use empirical relationships to estimate methylmercury (MeHg) concentrations in water from HgII export and total Hg concentrations in fish from MeHg concentrations.


What happens in the artic will not stay in the artic, and there will definitely be an increase in the mercury concentrations as conjecture implies. But if we can sustain the Paris Agreement and decrease the C02 emissions as planned then there is hope that we can control the levels of mercury release.

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