Defrosting Ancient Terrors: The Alarming Risks of Thawing Arctic Permafrost

June 29, 2023
2 mins read
Source: Permafrost Massive buried ice, Author- Dave Fox (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Permafrost is ground that remains frozen when it is at 0 degrees Celsius or below it for two consecutive years. It is also a reservoir for viruses that are ancient and pose a significant threat. Materials like mammoth wool, Siberian mummies, prehistoric wolves, and even the lungs of an Influenza victim buried in Alaska’s permafrost have been discovered. These materials contain viral particles that are extremely risky. The risk of infectious ancient viral particles has been underestimated by scientists and will continue to rise due to global warming. The rise in temperatures also contributes to permafrost thawing, which will result in the release of ancient viruses and environmental dangers. A study conducted recently has shown that permafrost can cause irreversible harm to the Arctic region if it thaws. There are thousands of sites that are contaminated by industrial waste and risk destabilization. The frozen ground traps toxic substances that pose a huge threat to the surrounding environment if released. Industrial contamination, such as drilling and mining wastes, heavy metals, spilled fuels, and radioactive waste, all come together to contribute to the risk of permafrost thawing.

Scientists have successfully revived long-frozen microbes, such as the 1918 Influenza virus, Pithovirus sibericum, Mollivirus sibericum, Pandoravirus mammoth, Megavirus mammoth, Pacmanvirus lupus, and even smallpox. This revival may be groundbreaking, but it is also extremely concerning. It reveals that several human and animal particles that can be risky for human beings exist in the permafrost. While the release of such viruses is a threat, permafrost thawing also results in the release of greenhouse gases, which will rapidly increase the pace of climate change. The consequences of thawing permafrost are far-reaching. The Arctic region, known for its stability and pristine environment, is home to numerous industrial facilities, including oilfields, pipelines, mines, and military bases. It was once assumed that the frozen ground would permanently contain the toxic waste generated by these industries. This belief is now being challenged. The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate. This is fear-inducing because the waste buried in permafrost poses an increasing threat to the environment and human health. Thawing permafrost could lead to the destabilization of industrial and contaminated sites. It may also pose a huge threat to mankind as it is capable of potentially releasing hazardous substances and causing further environmental damage. 

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Permafrost thawing brings with it the risk of releasing new or re-emerging diseases that humans would not be able to fight because of a lack of immunity and effective treatments. The volume of carbon that is stored in the Arctic permafrost raises huge concerns because its release could contribute heavily to global warming. There is an urgent need to take extremely proactive measures to prevent the harmful effects of permafrost thawing. There need to be strategies around the world put into place to prevent further climate change while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Protocols need to be put into place to prevent the release of infectious viral particles. A combination of strict regulations and remediation plans is also necessary to address the contamination caused by industrial sites and to stop further environmental degradation from happening. Failure to act against this could have horrifying consequences on the Artic region and extend to the global community.

Diya Sharma

I am currently a second-year Journalism and Mass Communications. After joining Karmactive I have written about sustainability, climate change, and a wide range of topics. Overall, my interests are surrounding writing, reading, and public speaking! I wrote about several environmentally relevant topics in the course of my internship and look forward to many more.

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