Melting permafrost in the Arctic is 1000 years old, and scientists are worried about its content

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Although climate change is visible worldwide, the melting of thousand-year-old Arctic permafrost and hidden pathogens have scientists on high alert. The Arctic is changing rapidly, accelerating warming for the entire Earth. But the issue that has scientists and government officials on high alert is what’s hiding underneath the surface.

Artic on the front line

A 2022 study shows that the Arctic has heated almost four times faster than the rest of the world in the past four decades. This implies that the area is 3C warmer than it was in 1980.

It is not difficult to explain why the Arctic is heating up so rapidly. Covered with ice, the Arctic Ocean acts like a sizeable reflective veil, and as the sea ice melts, absorption rates increase. However, beyond melting icebergs is a question of increased biological activity.

The question of permafrost

Permafrost, which is no longer a permanently frozen layer of the Earth’s surface, stores around 1.5 trillion metric tons of organic carbon. This is where the remains of ancient life are stored. The Pentagon, medical professionals, and scientists are worried about pathogens organisms that cause diseases in their hosts.

In a 2023 study, scientists warned of “time-traveling pathogens” that could disrupt the planet’s biodiversity. A decade ago, Jean-Michel Claverie, a professor emeritus of medicine and genomics at the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine, reminded that “zombie” viruses are hidden in the permafrost.

The impact is a mystery

Jill Brandenberger, the lead climate security researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told Today, “We know there are bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens in permafrost.” The scientist added, “We know that upon thaw, all three of those classes of pathogens could be released. What we don’t know is how viable it is for them to stay alive and then infect.”

The impact on the US has U.S. Northern Command, the Pentagon’s headquarters for protecting America from attack on high alert. A statement to USA Today said, “We are collectively assessing the risks associated with the potential release of pathogens as a result of ice and permafrost melting due to the changing climate.”

The statement added, “Some of the nation’s best scientists, medical professionals, and field operators are working together to advance our scientific understanding of what microbes melting permafrost may release and to enhance public understanding of what hazards this dynamic may pose.”

Alaska is the center of attention

Permafrost covers 85% of Alaska, so apart from the US officials and scientists, there is an increased interest in the area from researchers from Russia and China. But, this is not only a question of killer viruses and bacteria but also a question of national safety in a broader sense.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Arctic and Global Resilience, Iris Ferguson, confirmed, “There’s a significant change afoot in the Arctic region. First, climate change is impacting operations on the ground very much. There’s changing permafrost, there’s coastal erosion… It’s causing us to rethink how and where we need to operate and how and where we need to defend our interests.”

That’s why the Pentagon increased its presence in the area in the past years.

Pathogens could affect troops

To make matters more disturbing, researchers from Brandenberger’s laboratory discussed how global warming and extremely cold winters could affect the troops. The researchers said during a press conference how this combination “might increase their ability to have symptoms from a pathogenic exposure where, say, an indigenous person who lived there wouldn’t express those same symptoms because they live there.”

One of the leading researchers at this laboratory confirmed, “One of our major concerns is there are so many unknowns.” Branderberger also alerted that a pathogen might infect humans, animals, or plants, though the scientist is not worried about a “zombie bug that triggers the apocalypse.”

Other impacts

The Arctic and Antarctic are the world’s refrigerators. With their melting, the global average sea level has increased by approximately 7–8 inches since 1900. Unpredictable weather has already damaged crops and could continue negatively impacting global food systems.

Wildlife is trying to find new places to exist and often comes in contact with humans. Polar bears, walruses, snowy owls, and numerous other species are endangered, and drastic disruptions to the system could be disastrous.