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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Explained: Can thawing permafrost cause another pandemic?

In an interview with Indianexpress.com, Dr. Christopher R. Burn, President of the International Permafrost Association, explains the consequences of permafrost thawing.

Written by Aswathi Pacha , Edited by Explained Desk | Kochi |
Updated: September 14, 2021 8:01:17 am
Organic permafrost: Little roots hanging down next to the ice mass in the ground. The trowel is 22 cm long for scale. (Credit: Dr.Christopher Burn)

The latest IPCC report has warned that increasing global warming will result in reductions in Arctic permafrost and the thawing of the ground is expected to release greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

Defined as ground (soil, rock and any included ice or organic material) that remains at or below zero degree Celsius for at least two consecutive years, permafrost is spread across an area of over 23 million square kilometers, covering about 15% of the land area of the globe.

In an interview with IndianExpress.com, Dr. Christopher R. Burn, President of the International Permafrost Association, explains the consequences of permafrost thawing.

What will be the immediate effects as permafrost melts due to increasing global temperatures?

The first impacts that are very rapid will affect countries where roads or buildings were constructed on permafrost. The Russian railways are an example. In the northwest of Canada, now we have a short section of the road where it has been necessary to chill the ground to make the foundation of the road colder than it is, in order to preserve the permafrost. And for the 500 metres of road, the expense was $4 million. Now, this is a large amount of money for a short length of road.

But the biggest international problem is to do with the potential for organic material, which is now entombed and frozen in the ground. If the ground begins to thaw, this material will become available for microbiota to break down. In some environments, the biota will release carbon dioxide, and in others release methane which is about 25 to 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So there is a considerable concern.

The total quantity of carbon that is now buried in the permafrost is estimated at about 1500 billion tonnes and the top three meters of the ground has about 1000 billion tonnes.

The world currently emits into the atmosphere, approximately 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year. So, if the permafrost thaws and releases even only one per cent of the frozen carbon in any one year, it can nullify anything that we do about industrial emissions.

So, do we need more studies to understand these emissions that can happen?

Yes, we do. The majority of the effort so far has been on estimating how much carbon is in the permafrost. That’s where the scientific effort has been. Currently, there is some evidence, the first evidence was published in 2019, that some permafrost regions have changed from being a carbon storehouse to being places that are net emitters of carbon.

Dr. Burn with students. (Credit: Carleton University)

Another thing, which we need to study and which is a great concern to many of us, is the increase in the number of forest fires. This year Russia witnessed a forest fire whose total area was the size of Portugal. So it’s a big area that burned up.

Usually, after a fire, you expect the forest to grow back in the next 50 years to 60 years. This restores the carbon stock in the ecosystem. But in the tundra, the peat is where the organic material is and this takes a very long time to accumulate. So if we burn peat and release it into the atmosphere, then it will take centuries to restore that carbon stock at ground level. So that’s another problem that we don’t have our fingers on.

Can you explain if thawing permafrost can release new bacteria or viruses? Can it cause another pandemic?

The answer is that permafrost has many secrets. We recently found mammoths in the permafrost in Russia. And some of these mammoth carcasses when they begin to degrade again may reveal bacteria that were frozen thousands of years ago. So there will be surprises. But whether they will be lethal surprises is just not possible to say.

Let’s also remember that when the permafrost was formed thousands of years ago, there weren’t many humans who lived in that region which was necessarily very cold.

And as you know, the number of diseases that you can find in India is much greater than the number of diseases you find in Greenland. The environment now is so much more suitable than during the Ice Age for not just human life, but also the evolution or development of viruses and bacteria.

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