Where the emergency is developing

Alaska is home to all sorts of wondrous nature. The place has numerous mountain ranges, peninsulas, and even a land bridge that was used by ancient humans to populate the Americas. Despite all of this beauty, the populations in these northern regions are a little sparse.

anchorage from the seaanchorage from the sea

In Anchorage, for instance, the population is around 300,000. In Fairbanks, the city’s population is closer to 37,000. Either way, the northern cities are dwarfed by those like Chicago, New York, or Michigan—each of which has a population of well over several million. Another thing that makes these northern cities different is the strange thing that lies beneath them…

Beneath the tundra

Underneath the miles of ice sheets and thawing glaciers, something dark has lurked. And it’s not one of the many amazing things that scientists have discovered frozen in ice. Instead, this is something far more dangerous. This thing has the capability of killing those who find it.

circles in the dirtcircles in the dirt

Moreover, what scientists have found out about this thing is that it is essentially a ticking time bomb. And with enough time elapsed, the thing will eventually give rise to something the likes of Alaska has never seen. The only way the Alaskan people can prepare themselves is to equip themselves with an understanding of what this thing is.

The disturbing discovery

In the 1960s, government officials had set up in Fairbanks to understand the nature of permafrost. Permafrost—perma meaning “permanent” and frost meaning “frost”—is an entity that builds in environments that experience year-round cold temperatures. Alaska is one such frigid place.

Coastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying active layer on the Arctic Coastal Plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. Credit: Brandt Meixell, USGSCoastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying active layer on the Arctic Coastal Plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. Credit: Brandt Meixell, USGS

In essence, the snowfall from years past accumulates. The bottom of this snowpack freezes. As future years of snow pile on, the lowest levels continue to freeze and harden. Since the layers at the top never melt down enough to expose the bottom layers, they stay frozen. The result is permafrost. The stuff covers about 85 percent of all of Alaska.

The dangers of melting

For permafrost to continue being permanently frozen, certain conditions must be met. The first and foremost of these is temperature: the surrounding environment must keep the soil and rocks below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures this cold, the weather can’t thaw the lowest levels of the frost.

the alaskan permafrost from abovethe alaskan permafrost from above

If the temperatures exceed freezing, they will have to stay that warm for long enough to melt through to the bottom of the permafrost. If they are only warm for a few months, say, they will not exert enough heat to melt the bottommost layers of the compounded ice. To do this, you would need several years of consecutive heat. This is the situation we are in now…

Cities left in shambles

Permafrost poses many obstacles to the towns around which it exists. In many parts of Alaska, for instance, buildings are built on the stuff. Because it is so permanent, most of the towns didn’t expect that it would crumble with the increased temperatures afforded by increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.


With changes in average global temperatures over the past several dozen years, the Alaskan permafrost has started to melt. And with this melting, the buildings and other infrastructure that was built on the permafrost has begun to collapse. The result is a city in shambles. But this is only one of the problems associated with melting permafrost…

Tunneling into danger

The tunnel built by the ’60s researchers was aimed at studying this permafrost. At first, the permafrost they had set out to study was influenced very little by the surrounding conditions. Our Earth hadn’t yet changed in response to the modern deluge of greenhouse gases. Now, this great freezing is coming undone.

picture of a tunnel beneath the groundpicture of a tunnel beneath the ground

The increased C02 traps the heat from the sun in the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing its global temperatures. We’ve seen the same thing happen throughout history: the more C02 that enters the atmosphere, the warmer and more humid the environment gets. When this heat reaches the permafrost, it induces it to melt. The results can be devastating…

A cautious approach

The tunnel that the researchers had built was turned into a research facility—called the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility. The purpose of this research facility is to study the cold and arctic conditions that contribute to the formation of the permafrost and the conditions that also lead to its dissolution.

a dark tunnel that is filled with approximately one persona dark tunnel that is filled with approximately one person
The Alaska Life

The specific ways through which the tunnel allows these scientists to study the permafrost opened up the door to a history that the scientists hadn’t expected. This history revealed a world far different than that we see today. This history was jarring, shocking, and beyond belief. It induced them to reevaluate most of what they knew about the region…

What lays within the frost…

The permafrost holds all kinds of secrets. As it decays, it shows an abundance of fossil creatures that once roamed the northern circle. These creatures range from caribou to ancient people. Whatever it is, their histories have been captured in the frost to have only recently become unearthed.

mammoth tusk with engravings on itmammoth tusk with engravings on it

Some of the more staggering things that have been uncovered from the permafrost are mammoth tusks. These tusks revealed the signs of an ancient woolly mammoth that used to roam the northern Americas. Only after it was hunted ad nauseam did it succumb to the trials of history. But the mammoth tusks were just one of the things that the scientists had unearthed.

Another creature preserved…

Another staggering find that was resurrected from the frost was the woolly rhino. This furred creature differed from the likes of which we see in the plains of Africa. It didn’t have hairless skin; it had thick, robust tufts of hair to protect it from the blistering cold.


Again, the woolly rhino is another organism that has gone extinct due to excess human predation. The more we hunted it, the more it receded in number. Eventually, after enough hunting, the animal could no longer reproduce into the future. But these were not the things that scientists were worried about. What they were worried about was far more explosive…

The most terrifying find…

The most shocking find that the scientists had discovered was that the permafrost was also releasing C02—and more so than previously believed. The melting permafrost often hasn’t been a factor in the calculus of global warming equations. And, if it has, it has been a peripheral factor at best.

a man hikes on the snow during sunseta man hikes on the snow during sunset

As these scientists scramble to study the ways in which the melting frost might exacerbate global warming, they release just how bad things may become. Not only is the stuff releasing greenhouse gases into the air at a great magnitude, it is also releasing other plagues into the air. These are more immediately dangerous to those on the arctic plain.

The trouble magnifies…

Upon reflection, scientists realized that the permafrost contains twice as much carbon dioxide than currently resides in the atmosphere. If this carbon dioxide were to get released into the air, the result would be devastating. The last time carbon dioxide content was that high in the atmosphere, the Earth was submerged in water.


With increased heat comes increased melting. And with a decrease in the amount of ice that the Earth holds, the water cycle will allocate more water to the oceans and seas. The result, as you might expect, is that most of the areas on Earth that are near the water (and even those that are farther inland) will be submerged beneath the waves.

Testing a theory…

To get a grip on how this melting permafrost might affect the surrounding environment (and how quickly it would implement these changes), the scientists in the tunnel have set up localized experiments. In effect, they have isolated certain locations of the permafrost where the conditions are ideal to commit localized warming.

Researchers in the arctic outside setting up equipmentResearchers in the arctic outside setting up equipment
Wikimedia Commons

From here, they could analyze the carbon dioxide yield. The place they went to was ideal because it hovered around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, it wouldn’t take much to get the isolated section of permafrost to melt. And from there, they could measure what would happen when the stuff yielded to the heat. The results weren’t good.

Unexpected results

The isolated patch of permafrost that the scientists had set out to inspect was small. It measured around five inches in length and two-and-a-half inches wide. From here, they could glean in microcosm the effects that the melting frost would have on the global atmosphere.

A submarine surfaced at the North PoleA submarine surfaced at the North Pole

They excised the section of the ground and took it to a laboratory to study the effects in an isolated environment. What they found was what you might expect: increased C02 in ample amounts. But the results also released something that the scientists didn’t expect. This is the thing that ended up changing their perspective on the importance of permafrost for the global environment.

A frozen secret

In the permafrost, scientists found more than just abundant C02. They also found hidden bacteria. This stuff had been frozen for almost 25,000 years. But more disconcertingly, this bacteria immediately breathed back into life. Somehow, the cell structures of the bacteria were able to survive in this ice.

bacteria on a agar platebacteria on a agar plate
Public Domain Image

After being unfrozen, they immediately set back into function. This has horrible implications for those who live near the ice. The frozen permafrost, in other words, can yield horribly virulent diseases and bacteria that have been frozen in the ice. This bacteria is made especially worse because we have had no exposure to it.

A problem made even worse…

The bacteria, once released from their eternal slumber, began to digest the other organic material within the frost. The results of this digestion were horrible. Not only did the melting permafrost release carbon dioxide as a result, but the hungry bacteria secreted methane as they digested their new food.

ice in alaskaice in alaska

Methane, unfortunately often released from animals in the form of gas from digestion, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon. It will, in other words, work to trap more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere than carbon will. The result, as these scientists were well aware, would be an even greater increase in the speed of global warming.

The worst of all…

But other than the melting committed by global warming, the dwindling permafrost has also created other horrendous trends. Scientists discovered these trends from local stories of similar things happening in the Siberian tundra and from flying over the sheets of frozen ground.

pix of the earthpix of the earth

What they saw was a sort of pox on the Earth. These images depicted the strange appearance of holes in the ground. No one was really sure where these came from or why they existed. But their existence was troubling. Why might holes like this emerge in the Earth’s crust? Could they expedite the process of global warming? What other harm could they do?

Changing history…

In Alaska’s past, it was a greater absorber of C02 than an emitter. Since relatively few people live there and since the place was so great at absorbing the stuff, it helped assuage the effects of the growing industrialization. Now, however, this lifeline has slowly dimmed.

north america from satellite viewnorth america from satellite view

With the increase in C02 that has been affecting the rest of the world, the net good that Alaska has done for global warming has reversed. Now, because of the content of the permafrost in the form of ancient bacteria and C02, it poses one of the greatest risks to extant life on our planet. This melting land could prove to spiral us into a carbon trap from which we will never recover…

A new hope?

Scientists like to think that this isn’t all bad news. While they understand the effects of this melting are undoubtedly and ubiquitously bad, they see a minor silver lining. And this lining exists within the flora that might grow in response to the newly afforded territory.

leaf dripping waterleaf dripping water

As the permafrost thaws, it opens up new ground upon which new plants can grow. And with new plants comes a newfound ability to digest and store C02. The result will be an increase in oxygen—not C02. While this likely won’t be enough to reverse the effects of the warming methane and carbon dioxide gases, it will help at least a little.

More projects

Because of the dangers posed by the melting permafrost, many other researchers have set out to study the same thing. One such group, the Carbon in Permafrost Experimental Heating Project, has worked to see how these changes will affect diverse and well-established ecosystems.

nuclear reactor doing something fishynuclear reactor doing something fishy

The group, from Northern Arizona University, hopes to study permafrost to better understand it. They believe, as do most scientists, that the more research they do, the more they might be able to comprehend these processes and prevent them from doing as much damage as they could. While the results of this melting have been compared to an impending train wreck, there is still hope.

The tool

Scientists, in response to the impending disaster, have crafted new methods with which to study the diminishing permafrost. One of these has been through the use of a metal rod that can detect minor changes in C02. To use the stick, they must bore it into the melting frost.

A man in the arctic north sampling the water temperature with boat in the distanceA man in the arctic north sampling the water temperature with boat in the distance

From there, they must dig deeper, so that it can reach the layers of grass and soil that lay beneath. Then, it must reach the frozen ground which lays beneath it all. The rod comes equipped with what are called “C02 flux chambers,” which can detect minor and major shifts in surrounding carbon dioxide. Researchers have been using this tool for years.

What about fires?

There have been other unforeseen complications with the loss of permafrost. One of these is the growth of more severe forest fires. These fires can tear through the mats of grass and other vegetation that line the top of the permafrost below. With these mats taken by fires, the resting permafrost will be more exposed to the warm rays of the sun.

wildfire takes over deers in riverwildfire takes over deers in river

Measuring the number of wildfires that Alaska has experienced in the past few years, the numbers have risen. Because the temperatures of the atmosphere have gone up, it won’t take as much fire to do as much damage. Now, with an increased frequency, the amount of permafrost that is jeopardized will only grow.

More unforeseen troubles…

It seems the list of problems associated with the thawing permafrost is endless. And this does, in fact, appear to be the case. As the frost melts, for instance, another unforeseen cost is the increased release of mercury into the surrounding environment. Yes, that’s right: mercury.

Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have discovered that certain sections of the permafrost contain poisonous and toxic mercury. This mercury, if released from its icy crypt, will seep into surrounding river systems and get carried off into the ecosystem at large and eventually into the people that surround it. When one considers the toxic effects of mercury poisoning, it is easy to see how disconcerting this is.

The effects of mercury

When one experiences too much mercury, he or she experiences mercury poisoning. This poisoning affects neural function to the point of severity, rendering irreversible damage in the person it affects. The list of symptoms that result from the poisoning is long and daunting. These show how much you’ll want to avoid mercury in your foods.

mecury in the ground from a mind in indiamecury in the ground from a mind in india

First off, you would experience the normal symptoms associated with an infection from a poisonous foreign body: dizziness, fatigue, and poor coordination. But you might also experience more severe symptoms, like numbness in the hands and feet, difficulty seeing, problems with memory, and rashes so bad they can peel horrendously.

Too large to fathom…

Some of the reserves of mercury that the scientists have discovered are larger than any they have ever seen on Earth. Because of this, scientists are very worried about what the release of this mercury might do to the surrounding ecosystems and the life that exists within them.

Brownish-red contaminated water in a small lake in a dry, arid landscapeBrownish-red contaminated water in a small lake in a dry, arid landscape
Wikimedia Commons

The effects of this type of contamination are already visible elsewhere. In Michigan, for instance, some of the fish that people might otherwise eat has been deemed unsafe for consumption. This is because they contain such exorbitantly high rates of mercury. And with this increased mercury comes an increased risk of poisoning to the towns that would ingest the fish.

What to do next?

In response to this foreboding disaster, scientists have pondered long and hard about ways to ameliorate the damage. Some have proposed that we employ new programs to set up flora that can try and digest some of the C02 into breathable oxygen. But this project seems almost unfeasible given the sheer amount of C02 that they would have to digest.


Other strategies include reductions in C02 that we are already struggling to implement. For the world to make progress toward preventing disasters like these, scientists would have to better convince the public of the project’s importance. But for whatever reason, this task has proved exceptionally more difficult than it should be…