Scientists have warned that something drastic needs to be done by 2040 in our fight against climate change. But as humanity continues its efforts to save the planet, what’s lurking beneath Alaska could imply it might just be too late…
A Little Spot at the End of the World
As far as size goes, Alaska is certainly the largest state in the U.S. Yet the majority of Americans have never set foot in the region. Perhaps it has to do with Alaska being at the northwest tip of the country - or maybe it’s just too cold.
Whatever the reason, more than 736,000 people call The Last Frontier home. Juneau may be the state capital, but its population pales in comparison to Anchorage and Fairbanks, the latter of which has around 30,700 residents. It is near here, beside a red shed, where Alaska’s ticking time bomb can be found…
The city of Fairbanks is pretty much as far north as one can get in Alaska. It is situated almost 16-degrees north of the Pacific border between the U.S. and Canada. The region is also roughly parallel to the Swedish city of Skellefteå and Oulu in Finland.
As residents of Fairbanks go about their daily routines, many are unaware that a very dangerous situation is lurking underground. It is only by venturing further north that one can become familiar with the state of affairs, which has the ability to impact every human being — no matter how far away from Alaska they may be.
Studying the Earth's Surface
As for what exactly's lurking underground? We're about to find out. Located miles away from Fairbanks sits a mysterious shack, nestled amidst the trees. One glance at the surrounding, abandoned area, and it does give off a rather ominous feel. And perhaps with good reason.
The area's seemingly random structure is fitted with a heavy door, similar to those attached to walk-in freezers. With its thick insulation and substantial latch, it is clear that this considerable slab of metal is in place to keep whatever is on the other side safe. Or perhaps to keep us safe from it…?
The Permafrost Testing Site
Sure enough, roughly 40-feet below the Earth’s surface lies the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). Sound familiar? The facility is also known as a United States Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center.
Although the CRREL headquarters is situated in New Hampshire, the branch in Fairbanks is unique in that it includes a tunnel approximately 360-feet in length, 6.5 to 8-feet high, and 13 to 16-feet wide. It is here where vast research on permafrost is conducted.
What is Permafrost?
Those unfamiliar with permafrost, don't worry: the scientific term applies to soil that has remained frozen for a period of at least two years. The soil can be on land or under the ocean and measure anywhere from an inch to several miles below the Earth's surface.
Permafrost typically forms in any climate where the average annual air temperature is lower than the freezing point of water — in other words, 0-degrees Celsius. With Alaska being located so far up north, sharing borders with Canada and Russia, it’s safe to say that it’s fairly cold.
A Global Issue
According to scientists, permafrost is not a phenomenon that is unique to America’s 49th state. A significant amount of the Northern Hemisphere is covered in the stuff, with large parts of Alaska, Greenland, Canada, and Siberia all reported as having permafrost.
Benefits of permafrost include cooling the Earth while making the ground waterproof and providing a habitat for fauna and flora. In the words of Merritt Turetsky, who heads the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, permafrost is the glue that holds northern ecosystems together.
What Lies Beneath
When it comes to Alaska, more of the area is enveloped in permafrost than not. While 15% of the Northern Hemisphere is covered in permafrost, the frozen soil makes up at least 85% of the state. Naturally, it was the place to be for anyone with a vested interest in the subject.
It is not known exactly how old the permafrost is in Alaska. But scientists assume that based on the fact that the CRREL tunnel contains fossils belonging to a mammoth, we’re talking tens of thousands of years. Yet that may not be all that is lurking beneath… It is possible that the soil contains viruses and bacteria.
A Rise in Temperature
As alarming as it might seem to some, the Earth's temperature has, in fact, risen by more than an entire degree within the last decade. The period between 2011 and 2020 has seen warmer temperatures than during the Industrial Revolution. But that's not all.
The World Health Organization has deemed climate change to be the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, with countries committing to have carbon emissions by 2030. Considering that this is the hottest that the planet has ever been, it makes sense that even the permafrost is beginning to melt…
The Study Begins
The liquefying of soil that has been frozen for thousands of years poses a series of problems for the world. Firstly, it impacts the safety of the habitat where it is situated. And secondly, it has the potential to unleash whatever has been frozen — in this case, unknown viruses which we might not know how to treat.
Should the unthinkable happen, it is best we become acquainted with what we’re dealing with. And so, a team led by a geologist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Thomas Douglas, drilled into the ice to gather chunks that were the size of a soda can to test.
A Dangerous Discovery
Treating the permafrost like ice cream, the team left the frozen soil out for it to melt at room temperature. Unlike ice cream, though, it took around a few days to melt — then again, it had withstood being in an icy state for years. Slowly but surely, the frost became less permanent…
Sophisticated microscopes were required to examine the contents of the ice, and the scientists’ suspicions were proven correct: living bacteria existed within the soil. “This is material that stayed frozen for 25,000 years,” Douglas said. “And given the right environmental conditions, it came back alive again vigorously.”
Ideal Conditions for a Virus
When it comes to sustainable organisms, viruses and bacteria are right up there. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth, and the current coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated just how dangerous they can be. Similarly, bacteria inhabit soil, water, and other habitats.
Both viruses and bacteria require specific conditions to cultivate - and the permafrost provided just that. “Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” explained Jean-Michel Claverie, who is an evolutionary biologist at France’s Aix-Marseille University.
Unearthing Ancient Diseases
Bacteria and viruses have earned themselves a negative reputation. And, for the most part, with good reason. Illnesses around the world are often brought about by these organisms. That being said, good bacteria does exist in the human body, and not all bacteria and viruses are necessarily harmful.
Chloroflexi is a virus responsible for dating carbon, and although it is found in permafrost, it poses no risk to humans. On the contrary, the frozen soil also possessed the deadly smallpox virus. Known officially as Orthopoxvirus, it killed approximately 300 million people in the 20th century. But that wasn't even the worst finding...
Prior Disease Outbreaks
One of the organisms discovered amidst the permafrost was the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s more likely that one will recognize the name of the infection it causes: anthrax. The disease is typically spread via breathing, eating, or through an area of broken skin.
Although anthrax can be treated with antibiotics in most cases, some countries have chosen to use the infection as a biological weapon - the first case of which dates back to 1916. Anthrax is known to spread rapidly and can result in severe illness and death, leading to an enormous risk should the permafrost melt.
Pandemics Preserved in Permafrost
Citizens of the world are still learning how to live with coronavirus well over a year after its initial onset. Yet this is far from the first pandemic that humanity has faced. Similarities have been drawn with the Spanish flu, which rocked the world between 1918 and 1920.
Almost a third of the world’s entire population had been infected by the virus. It is estimated that influenza claimed the lives of 25-50 million people. When scientists wanted to study the pathogens decades later, they retrieved them from the permafrost in an Alaskan village where 90% of the inhabitants had died.
Appearing at the Surface
Considering that microbes have the ability to survive in permafrost for tens of thousands of years, it means that the viruses and bacteria which get frozen do not die out. In other words, they do not lose their capacity to infect individuals should the ice thaw out. And therein lies the danger.
A minor anthrax outbreak was caused in 2016 when permafrost melted in northern Siberia. Spores from the carcass of a reindeer, which died 50 years earlier, caused the death of over 2,000 reindeers and infected around 100 people. Sadly, a 12-year-old boy also succumbed to the disease.
The Risk is Real
With the planet growing ever-warmer courtesy of climate change, the potential of virus-laden permafrost thawing out has moved on from a hypothetical situation to one that is very real. And with it lies the petrifying possibility that millions of illnesses will be unleashed.
During a heatwave in July 2020, the land surface temperature in Siberia was recorded as a scorching 45-degrees Celsius. Instances like this are why Swedish Professor of Infectious Diseases, Birgitta Evengård, has warned that climate change in the Arctic circle is progressing 3 times more rapidly than the rest of the world.
“[Anthrax] Is Everywhere”
But as scary as the threat level is, our fates have not yet been sealed — even if millennia-old ice does become liquid. David Morens, who is a medical epidemiologist at Maryland’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes that there is still hope.
He is of the opinion that our chances of becoming sick from these viruses are actually quite low. “[Anthrax] is everywhere,” cited Morens. “It is sitting in the grass in Texas. And so the fact that some might be in the permafrost doesn’t really add to whatever the risk is.”
Are Our Lakes Safe?
When Thomas Douglas’s team retrieved the Alaskan permafrost and allowed it to melt in their lab to examine the bacteria within, the process was conducted under very specific and controlled conditions. It is this which, Morens reckons, might be our saving grace.
The epidemiologist pointed out that although the viruses were able to thrive in a lab, they may not be able to do so in the wild. To prove the fragility of anthrax and the Spanish flu, Morens did his own experiment: only nucleic acid survived. “Nothing infectious. A ton of it swallowed would have been harmless,” he assured.
Differing Schools of Thought
As with many topics in science, consensus is not always achievable. While Morens may have been fairly certain that some of the most deadly bacteria of our time would perish given unfavorable conditions, other scientists reckon we might not be that lucky…
Anthrax, in particular, is a virus that can withstand significant changes in temperature. Another is that which causes botulism, a potentially fatal disease that results in overall body weakness. The spores of these bacteria do not die when reaching boiling point, allowing them to reproduce the toxin when conditions are suitable.
A Disturbing Discovery in the Caves
In 2014, French scientists discovered a virus that had been frozen within permafrost from Siberia. Once it had thawed, the pathogen, known as Pithovirus sibericum, was found to regain its infectiousness. This was alarming as the last time it was able to infect anything was 30,000 years prior.
Not only may some bacteria be able to reclaim their ability to infect other organisms, but there are those which are resistant to antibiotics. When scientists tested Paenibacillus spores from a cave in 2016, they were horrified to discover that it was resistant to 70% of antibiotics, including ones tested as a last resort.
Bacteria Found in Ice
It is well-documented that if one wants to keep something fresh, they keep it cold. Or better yet, iced. When transporting food, it is best to do so in a cooler bag. And in cases with organ transplant patients, the organ in question is transported in ice.
While viruses and bacteria preserved in permafrost can retain their potency for a few thousand years, examples of this are not found only in soil. NASA scientists tested ice taken from an Alaskan lake in 2005 and found viral microbes from the Pleistocene period when mammoths still existed.
Bigger Problems to Worry About
Safe to say, microbes from prehistoric times lying frozen in wait are definitely cause for concern. But unfortunately, they are not the only worry as far as permafrost is concerned. There are not just viruses contained in the ice, but mass amounts of carbon dioxide as well.
Thanks to permafrost’s ability to absorb and retain CO2, it has enabled the planet’s climate to remain stable. Yet, the increase in Earth’s temperature — ironically caused by carbon emissions — is melting the ice, which can, consequently, release the carbon dioxide and worsen climate change.
Alaska's Rich History
The CRREL permafrost research tunnel in Fairbanks possesses a series of artifacts that have survived the Ice Age. Amongst the vertebrate fossils that are visible in the walls are the bones and teeth of mammoths, primordial horses, and bison - as well as butterflies, beetles, and other insects.
Even flora has been preserved amidst the ice, with Douglas alleging that some of the grass he found dating back 25,000 years. Due to the fossils containing such a vast amount of carbon, their thawing out could potentially release an enormous quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
How Much Permafrost is Really on Earth?
Carbon dioxide is just one of the greenhouse gases that put the planet in danger. The other is methane which, when measured in the Arctic in 2010, was found to be twice as high as any other time during the last 400,000 years. This has worsened far more in the decade since.
Bacteria that are once again active after being unfrozen have to feed to survive and grow. As a result, germs consume the carbon found in the permafrost, thus converting it into both methane and carbon dioxide. According to Douglas, permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere.
"Alaska Has Changed"
Alaska was once viewed as a key player when it came to preserving the health of the planet and combating the dangerous effects of climate change. But the threatening issue of melting permafrost has transformed the region from a haven to more of a hazard.
To quote Charles E. Miller, a doctor of chemistry at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “We have evidence that Alaska has changed from being a net absorber of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to a net exporter.” This is largely due to the state’s net temperature growing by 4-degrees in the last 40 years.
Impacting Alaskan Residents
The impact of permafrost thawing out will be felt far and wide, as it will not only endanger ecosystems in and around the Arctic - but globally too. It is most likely that the occurrence will create what is known in the scientific community as a “feedback loop.”
Once melted, the bacteria feeding on fossils in the permafrost will release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. In turn, the presence of more of these greenhouse gases will cause the planet to heat, thus prompting more permafrost to melt.
Permafrost's Effect on Plantlife
Although scientists have some notion of how and when this will take place, they are only human and can't say for sure how such events will play out. It has been thought, however, that some positive aspects may arise from such a frightening situation…
Some have assumed that a portion of the carbon set to be released into the environment may be swept away by the ocean. Plantlife will also be able to grow in areas where the ice has melted, which will, in turn, re-absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from the permafrost.
On Shaky Grounds
At the end of the day, though, there's no denying the facts: Alaska is mostly built on permafrost. For decades, residents have built their infrastructure on and around the frozen soil. But it hasn't been easy. In situations where it has melted, roads, buildings, and other structures have reportedly caved in.
“I’ve heard of dozens of houses falling in and a few churches,” revealed Darcy Peter. The researcher is herself an Alaskan and works at the Woodwall Climate Research Centre, where she focuses on greenhouse emissions. “There are multiple graveyards that are falling in, and there’s nothing that anybody can do.”
The Price of Melting Permafrost
As such, melting permafrost is not just an environmental problem, but a financial issue as well. Collapsing infrastructure has placed a burden on both residents and municipalities in Alaska - particularly in smaller and rural communities where the presence of permafrost is higher.
A study conducted in 2017 painted a grim financial picture for Alaskans. Climate change is expected to cost the state at least $5.5 billion by the end of the century. The local government also does not have enough money to assist the indigenous and native communities, which are currently being the most affected.
A Long Way To Go…
The effects of climate change might be devastating, and the measures that need to be put into place might seem daunting. But scientists have outlined ways in which we can help to mitigate the effects. One way is by reducing the use of cars as they emit pollution. Citizens can also reduce their carbon footprints with renewable energy.
At the end of the day, though, change won't happen overnight. "The data that we have is extraordinarily time-consuming," Merritt Turetsky, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, explained of finding a long-term solution. Stay tuned while this story develops.