2017-07-15 03:00:03 UTC
Remember: When a science columnist says something is possible they may
be right. If they say something is impossible they are most likely
A frozen chunk of land that scientists thought would never thaw is
melting -- and the effects could be catastrophic
Lydia Ramsey, Erin Brodwin
Jul 13, 2017, 3:12 AM
There seems to be an ever-growing list of ominous consequences of
melting ice - especially when it's the kind scientists expected would
remain frozen forever.
"Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate
scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed
permanently frozen," New York Magazine's David Wallace-Wells wrote in
a recent piece about climate change.
Permafrost is a combination of ice, soil, plants, and other materials
that stays frozen all year round, even as layers on the very top thaw
out seasonally. The United States Geological Survey compared it to a
"sponge" that soaks up carbon and nutrients.
But by the middle of this century, scientists project that the area of
permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere will decrease between 20-35%.
The most obvious challenge of melting permafrost is flooding, which
poses a threat to sea levels as well as facilities in the Arctic
circle like the "doomsday" vault, which stores seeds for every known
crop on the planet. Melted ice water recently flooded the vault, but
ultimately the water was kept away from the seeds.
But melting permafrost can also lead to unanticipated effects that
humans haven't had to worry about for 1000s of years.
"Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 tr tons of carbon, more than
twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth's atmosphere,"
As the permafrost in the Arctic melts, it could release that carbon
dioxide, along with methane, an even more potent gas that traps in 30
times as much heat as carbon dioxide. Such a release could influence
the global climate, researchers concluded in 2014.
Even more daunting, scientists working in the Arctic circle in recent
decades have unearthed several massive viruses that some say could be
re-awakened if the permafrost that imprisons them dissolves.
Some researchers have suggested that these enormous viruses could thaw
out, escape, and make lots of people sick. There's even a possibility
that some infections that were a problem in Siberia around the 18th
and 19th centuries could make a comeback as well.
It sounds like something out of a horror film, but you shouldn't get
too concerned - at least not yet.
What thawed-out viruses could mean for humans
In 2015, researchers in Siberia uncovered the Mollivirus sibericum, a
30,000-year-old behemoth of a virus that succeeded in infecting a
rather defenseless amoeba in a lab experiment. About a decade earlier,
scientists discovered the first Mimivirus, a 1,200-gene specimen
measuring twice the width of traditional viruses, buried beneath
layers of melting frost in the Russian tundra. (For comparison, HIV
has just 9 genes.)
The likelihood that these viruses will break free and sicken humans is
slim, according to New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer, whose
recent book, "A Planet of Viruses," digs into what we know about
viruses and the diseases they cause.
"These particular viruses infect amoeba. So if you're an amoeba, yeah
you should be really scared," Zimmer told Business Insider in a 2015
interview. "There are no human pathogens that have burst out of the
Siberian permafrost. That's not to say that viruses won't emerge, but
there are so many viruses circulating in living animals, I think we
should put these frozen viruses very low on our list of concerns."
[Noticed an unofficial poll related to #SeaLevel2017 found the majority now
expected 1-2m of SLR by 2100].
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