Tag Archives: permafrost

Russian researchers want to study ancient viruses from the Siberian permafrost

Russian state laboratory Vector has announced a new research project in which it will probe ancient animals frozen in the Siberian permafrost, looking for ancient. The aim of the project is to identify such viruses and conduct advanced research into virus evolution.

“We hope that interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us, one researcher was quoted.”

The remains of many Paleolithic creatures are trapped in the icy grip of the Siberian permafrost. Aided by global warming that melted some of the ice, expeditions have uncovered the remains of numerous kinds of animals preserved by the freezing temperatures. The remains are interesting by themselves, but Russian researchers now want to probe even further, and look at what type of viruses these organisms may have hosted.

The study will be focused on remains discovered in 2009 in Yakutia, a vast region of north-eastern Siberia where remains of Paleolithic animals including mammoths, elk, dogs, partridges, rodents, hares, and many others have been discovered. The researchers will be probing these groups looking for ancient viruses, called paleoviruses.

“We are conducting studies on paleoviruses for the first time,” said Maxim Cheprasov, head of the Mammoth Museum laboratory at Yakutsk University, who added that they have already carried out several bacterial studies on the samples.

The research is a collaboration between Vector and the University of Yakutsk. The work began with analysis of tissues extracted from a prehistoric horse thought to be at least 4,500 years old. Researchers drill a tiny hole and take tissue samples, placing them in a test tube. They then carry out a series of analyses on this sample, from genome sequencing to isolation of total nucleic acids, to obtain data on the entire biodiversity of the microorganisms in the sample.

“If nucleic acids aren’t destroyed, we will be able to obtain data on their composition and establish how it changed, what was the evolutionary development of microorganisms. Vector researcher Olesya Okhlopkova explains in a press release. She adds that they will also “determine the epidemiological potential of currently existing infectious agents.”

Sergei Fedorov, one of the participating researchers, adds that the findings are kept in a special freezer at temperatures of -16 to -18 degrees Celsius (around 0-3 degrees Fahrenheit). Mammoths will be a point of particular interest for the project, but researchers will look at samples from various ancient animals. “We hope that interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us,” says Fedorov

Vector is a secluded research institute that, in Soviet times, was weaponized and used in the Soviet biological warfare program. The laboratory made important progress in smallpox research, but also researched the production of various viruses and toxins. In post-Soviet times, the center focuses on vaccine research (for Hepatitis A or influenza, for instance), diagnosis systems, and other epidemiological research.

Vector also developed a COVID-19 vaccine (EpiVacCorona, not the Sputnik V) which was licensed in October in Russia and is scheduled to begin mass production in February.

Scientists mapped the world’s frozen peatlands – what the found was very worrying

Peatlands cover just a few percent of the global land area but they store almost one-quarter of all soil carbon and so play a crucial role in regulating the climate. My colleagues and I have just produced the most accurate map yet of the world’s peatlands – their depth, and how much greenhouse gas they have stored. We found that global warming will soon mean that these peatlands start emitting more carbon than they store.

Peatlands form in areas where waterlogged conditions slow down the decomposition of plant material and peat accumulates. This accumulation of carbon-rich plant remains has been especially strong in northern tundra and taiga areas where they have helped cool the global climate for more than 10,000 years. Now, large areas of perennially frozen (permafrost) peatlands are thawing, causing them to rapidly release the freeze-locked carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane.

Geoscientists have studied peatlands for a long time. They’ve looked at why some areas have peat but others don’t and they’ve looked at how peatlands work as natural archives through which we can reconstruct what the climate and vegetation was like in the past (or even what human life was life: many well-preserved ancient humans have been found in peat bogs).

Scientists have also long recognised that peatlands are important parts of the global carbon cycle and the climate. When plants grow they absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere and as this material accumulates in the peat, there is less carbon in the atmosphere and therefore the climate will cool in the long-term.

With all this knowledge about how important northern peatlands are, it is perhaps surprising to learn that, until recently, there was no comprehensive map of their depth and how much carbon they store. That is why I led an international group of researchers who put together such a map, which we can use to estimate how the peatlands will respond to global warming. Our work is now published in the journal PNAS.

Maps showing the location of northern peatlands and permafrost.
Peatland covers much of the far north – and often overlaps with permafrost. Hugelius et al / PNAS, Author provided

Peatlands are surprisingly difficult to map as their growth is connected to many different local factors, such as how water drains in the landscape. This meant we had to gather more than 7,000 field observations and use new statistical models based on machine learning to create the maps.

We found that peatlands cover approximately 3.7 million square kilometres. If it were a country, “Peatland” would be slightly larger than India. These peatlands also store approximately 415 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon – as much as is stored in all the world’s forests and trees together.

Scientist in protective clothing sat beside lake in peat bog
Sampling peatland in Siberia. Gustaf Hugelius, Author provided

Almost half of this northern peatland carbon is presently in permafrost, ground that is frozen all year round. But, as the world warms and permafrost thaws, it causes peatlands to collapse and completely changes how they relate to greenhouse gases. Areas that once cooled the atmosphere by storing carbon would instead release more of both CO₂ and methane than they stored. We found that the thaw projected from future global warming will cause releases of greenhouse gas that overshadow and reverse the carbon dioxide sink of all northern peatlands for several hundred years. The exact timing of this switch is still highly uncertain, but it is likely to happen in the later half of this century.

There are regions of very extensive permafrost peatlands in Western Siberia and around Hudson Bay in Canada. These unique environments and ecosystems will be fundamentally changed as the permafrost thaws, and their characteristic mix of frozen peat mounds and small lakes will be replaced by extensive areas of wet fens.

These changes will cause more CO₂ and methane to be released into the atmosphere as the previously frozen peat becomes available for microbes that degrade it. The thaw will also lead to large losses of peat into rivers and streams, which will influence both the food chains and biochemistry of inland waters and the Arctic Ocean.

These new finding further reinforce how urgent it is to rapidly reduce our emissions, as the only way to stop permafrost thaw is to limit global warming. There are no geoengineering solutions that can be deployed in these vast and remote areas. Our results clearly show that more limited global warming of 1.5℃-2℃ would be much less damaging than our current trajectories of 3℃-4℃ degrees or above.

Gustaf Hugelius, Senior Lecturer, Physical Geography, Stockholm University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Where Does the Carbon Go When Permafrost Coasts Erode?

Researchers walk near eroding shoreline on the southeastern side of Qikiqtaruk (Herschel Island) off the coast of Yukon, Canada. A new study indicates that eroding permafrost along Arctic coastlines could be a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: George Tanski.

The Arctic is warming faster than almost anywhere else on Earth. As a result, the region is changing rapidly: Glaciers are melting, sea ice is disappearing, and permafrost is thawing, which could accelerate climate change. The northern permafrost region covers roughly a quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and stores vast amounts of carbon—more than double the amount in the atmosphere today—much of it still locked away, frozen. Researchers have known for some time that permafrost could become a major source of greenhouse gases as the soil thaws and once-dormant microbes wake up and break down organic matter.

This thaw is accelerated in places along Arctic coasts, where permafrost is eroding into the sea. As sea ice–free conditions in the Arctic expand, cliffs and shorelines are exposed to storms and wave action for longer periods, accelerating erosion.

The Arctic’s permafrost coastlines, which make up more than a third of Earth’s coasts, are eroding at an average rate of roughly half a meter per year, though in some spots the rate tops 20 meters per year. Little is known, however, about the fate of the organic carbon in eroded permafrost as it enters the ocean. Climate models assume that it is consumed in primary production or buried offshore. But a new study by Tanski et al. suggests that a substantial portion is vented back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.

Researchers quantified carbon release from eroding Arctic permafrost by simulating permafrost-seawater mixing in a laboratory, using permafrost and seawater collected from Qikiqtaruk (Herschel Island) just off the Canadian Yukon coast.

Permafrost samples were mixed with seawater for 4 months—the length of the average, open-water season in the Arctic—at 4°C to mimic real-world conditions and at 16°C to study the impact of warming temperatures. The team measured carbon dioxide and methane emissions under aerobic conditions, as well as the total and dissolved organic carbon, stable carbon isotopes, and the ratio of organic carbon to nitrogen, before and after the 4-month period to estimate carbon turnover.

The researchers found, depending on the depth from which permafrost samples were taken and the temperature at which they were incubated, that between about 1% and 13% of the initial total organic carbon in the samples was released as carbon dioxide. Most of this release occurred in the first 2 months after mixing, with production rates peaking after 11 days.

The authors noted that their laboratory setup did not account for some environmental conditions—varying pH and nearshore currents, for example—that could influence permafrost carbon release from eroding Arctic coasts. Still, the study shows that eroding Arctic coastal permafrost can emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—as much as 0.9 teragram of carbon dioxide per year from the entire Arctic coastline based on a rough extrapolation of the team’s localized findings—which are currently unaccounted for in climate models, according to the authors.

Carbon cycle models assume that Arctic coasts and continental shelves are carbon sinks. As temperatures continue rising and the open-water season in the Arctic lengthens, accounting for coastal permafrost erosion will be critical in balancing the Arctic’s carbon budget. (Geophysical Research Lettershttps://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL084303, 2019)

—Kate Wheeling, Freelance Writer

Ancient life is waking up from melting ice and permafrost

As man-made climate emissions are heating up the planet, ice from caps and permafrost is melting, revealing ancient life that stayed frozen for centuries. Recently, researchers found a piece of moss which may even be alive.

A sample of the resurrected moss is still green. Image credits: P. Boelen/BAS.

You wouldn’t think too much of Aulacomnium turgidum if you saw it — though it’s unlikely that you would see it. The species features small leaves and inhabits the northern areas of Europe, North America, and sometimes on mountaintops. During the so-called Little Ice Age, a period ranging from 1600 to 1850, Europe and North America were subjected to much harsher winters than usual. Lakes froze and glaciers expanded throughout the Arctic, trapping whatever unfortunate vegetation they came across. A. turgidum was one such species trapped in the glaciers of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

You wouldn’t think anything could survive being frozen for centuries. Sure, some microorganisms, and maybe even nematodes (roundworms) — but not something like a plant, right?

“You wouldn’t assume that anything buried for hundreds of years would be viable,” said Catherine La Farge, who researches mosses at the University of Alberta, and scoured the retreating glaciers to find whatever life may be left behind.

But then she noticed something unexpected on some of the moss samples: they were green. Usually, thawed biological material is black, so it being green was quite unusual. La Farge brought the samples back to a lab and did what every responsible scientist would do: planted them.

In a special, nutrient-rich soil, the mosses were showered with light and warmth. It wasn’t long before some of the samples grew again, bursting with new shoots and leaves. It was mind-blowing, says La Farge.

But Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey, took things one step further: he resurrected moss that was frozen for over 1,500 years. While this is an absolutely stunning testament of biological resilience, it is not entirely unexpected that mosses can survive like this.

Mosses are tougher than most plants, being able to survive when temperatures plummet. They do this by desiccating — thoroughly eliminating as much water as possible, to prevent the formation of ice crystals, which can be devastating to cells. They can also divide and differentiate into every necessary tissue, which means that as long as some part of it survives and it has access to energy and nutrients, the moss can make a comeback.

The nematodes isolated from permafrost deposits bounced back to life within weeks of their thawing. Image credits: Shatilovich et al.

Even that is nothing compared to what nematodes were shown to be capable of: they bounced back after being frozen for 42,000 years, setting a new record for cryogenic survival. Within weeks after the thawing process was started, the worms were moving around and eating.

But there’s more to this story than just resilience: it’s also a warning. Along with the mosses and nematodes, there are also countless bacteria trapped in the permafrost, many of which can cause serious diseases.

“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” says evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France, to the BBC. “Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”

As the Earth heats up more and more, permafrosts will also melt more and more. In the 20th century alone, anthrax killed more than a million reindeer, and that anthrax is thought to have emerged from melting permafrost. With the many organisms currently frozen under the ice, it’s hard to say just what potential infections might lurk beneath the surface.

Our emissions are triggering a planetary chain reaction, and the consequences are dire and hard to foresee. So aside from the remarkable sturdiness of some creatures, there’s a cautionary story as well. There are who-knows-how-many creatures buried within the ice. In a sense, it’s like a graveyard — and some of that graveyard is waking up.


Thawing Canadian Arctic permafrost is releasing “substantial amounts” of mercury into waterways

Well, I wasn’t expecting climate change to do that, to be honest.


Image credits Tavo Romann / Wikimedia.

Thawing permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is releasing record amounts of mercury into local waterways, according to ecologists from the University of Alberta. The effects are not properly understood right now, but mercury is known to be toxic compound (in high quantities) to both humans and other organisms.


“Concentrations of mercury were elevated for at least 2.8 kilometres downstream of thaw slumps,” says Kyra St. Pierre, who co-led the study. “This suggests that some mercury from thaw slumps may be transported for many kilometres through downstream ecosystems, and into larger waterways.”

Mercury (Hg) is a metal that occurs in a liquid form at room temperature. It’s toxic to most organisms in large quantities and tends to accumulate in food webs (i.e. it’s not processed in the body and gets passed on from prey to predator).

We don’t get much trouble from mercury since it’s simply not that abundant in most natural settings. However, it is in permafrosts — permafrost sediments are estimated to store more mercury than Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, and soil combined, the team report. As climate change thaws these permafrosts, the mercury stored therein becomes mobile and leaches into the surrounding environment.

The issue is exacerbated by increasing precipitation in the Canadian Arctic (also due to climate change), the team adds.

“Climate change is inducing widespread permafrost thaw,” explained St. Pierre. “In regions where this results in thaw slumping, this may release a substantial amount of mercury into freshwater ecosystems across the Arctic.”

For now, the exact implications of this mercury contamination remains unknown. The team says that organisms in the area might absorb the metal from the environment (through food and drinking water), however, they don’t yet have sufficient data to tell. It may well be that local plants and wildlife are absorbing mercury but at too low levels for it to be a threat to the food web. Of course, the opposite may also be true.

The results, the team says, highlight the need for further research on mercury cycling in regions experiencing active permafrost thaw. They also say more research is needed on if (and how) this mercury might enter food webs in surrounding ecosystems.

The paper ” Unprecedented Increases in Total and Methyl Mercury Concentrations Downstream of Retrogressive Thaw Slumps in the Western Canadian Arctic” has been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake through the ice at its surface. Credits: Katey Walter Anthony/ University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Thawing Arctic lakes are bubbling methane, greatly amplifying global warming

A NASA study of certain bubbling lakes in the Arctic suggests that methane deposits are being released due to an understudied phenomenon called ‘abrupt thawing’. Methane — which is 30 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide — has been frozen for potentially thousands of years and its sudden release could significantly impact the climate by the end of the century.

Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake through the ice at its surface. Credits: Katey Walter Anthony/ University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake through the ice at its surface. Credits: Katey Walter Anthony/ University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Methane and carbon dioxide are both produced in thawing permafrost as animal and plant remains decompose. As long as this organic matter remains frozen, it will stay in the permafrost. However, if it thaws, it starts decaying, releasing carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere — which is why scientists are deeply concerned with the present development.

Right now, Earth’s atmosphere contains roughly 850 gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is about the weight of 100,000 school buses). Scientists estimate that there is about twice as much carbon frozen in permafrost than present in the atmosphere today.

That doesn’t mean that all of the carbon will end up in the atmosphere. The trick is to find out how much of the frozen carbon is going to decay, how fast, and where. The full picture seems to be even more complex than previously thought. In a new study, scientists have discovered a new source of methane that hasn’t been accounted for by climate models — methane emissions from ‘thermokarst‘ lakes.

Such lakes form when permafrost taws at a faster rate and deeper levels than usually happens. This sudden thawing creates a depression which fills up with rainwater, ice, and snow melt. The water’s presence then leads to even more thawing at the shores of the lake, speeding up the rate of methane release into the atmosphere.

“The mechanism of abrupt thaw and thermokarst lake formation matters a lot for the permafrost-carbon feedback this century,” said first author Katey Walter Anthony at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “We don’t have to wait 200 or 300 years to get these large releases of permafrost carbon. Within my lifetime, my children’s lifetime, it should be ramping up. It’s already happening but it’s not happening at a really fast rate right now, but within a few decades, it should peak.”

Walter Anthony and colleagues used a combination of computer models and field measurements to reach the conclusion that abrupt thawing more than doubles previous estimates of permafrost-derived greenhouse warming.

“Within decades you can get very deep thaw-holes, meters to tens of meters of vertical thaw,” Walter Anthony said. “So you’re flash thawing the permafrost under these lakes. And we have very easily measured ancient greenhouse gases coming out.”

Current models estimate carbon emission from thawing permafrost as a gradual process. These new results suggest that in reality, the Arctic’s thawing feedback loops are more complex than we suspected. It’s all especially concerning considering that the IPCC — the leading international body for the assessment of climate change — did not incorporate any permafrost carbon emissions and the resulting amplification of climate change in its most recent climate projections.

This means that it will be even more challenging to keep global temperatures below the 1.5- or 2- degrees Celsius target set by the international community under the Paris Agreement. 

Even so, methane emissions from thawing permafrost pale in comparison to the amount of human fossil fuel emissions. According to the researchers, permafrost methane emissions account for only 1% of the global methane budget. So the best thing we can do is to transition as fast as possible to a carbon-neutral society.

 “But by the middle to end of the century the permafrost-carbon feedback should be about equivalent to the second strongest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases, which is land use change,” Walter Anthony said.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Perfectly preserved 40,000-year-old foal belonging to now-extinct horse found in Siberian Permafrost

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

While they were on an expedition in the Yakutia region of Siberia, Japanese scientists came across a one-of-a-kind discovery: the remains of a foul belonging to a now-extinct species of horse. The 40,000-year-old horse was found buried beneath 30 meters of permafrost, which preserved it so well that scientists found it with its tail, mane, and hooves still attached.

According to Semyon Grigoryev, the head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the foul was just three months old when it died during the late Palaeolithic period.

Left: nose of the horse, Right: hooves of the horse. Credit: Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University.

Left: nose of the horse, Right: hooves of the horse. Credit: Michil Yakoklev/North-Eastern Federal University.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

Credit: Michil Yakovlev/SVFU.

The 38-inch baby horse still had all of its internal organs when Japanese researchers from North-Eastern Federal and Kindai Universities found it. The foul even retained its dark brown coat and, by one account, its legs had ‘zebra-like’ stripes — everything was extraordinarily preserved despite tens of thousands of years have passed since the baby horse’s death.

The horse was an Equus lenesis, also known as the Lena horse, which is now extinct.

“This is the first find in the world of a pre-historic horse of such a young age and with such an amazing level of preservation,” Grigoryev told The Siberian Times. 

Besides the novelty of finding such a well preserved ancient specimen, the discovery may lead to other important scientific developments. Researchers also collected soil samples from where the horse was found, meaning they can now reconstruct what the environment looked like during the late Pleistocene.

An aerial view of Batagai. Credit: Siberian Times.

An aerial view of Batagai. Credit: Siberian Times.

The horse was found in Batagai depression, which is also called the “Mouth of Hell” — a tadpole-shaped, one-km-long crater initially created by the Soviets when they cleared the forest in the area. Scientists say the gash in the tundra is now being enlarged and shaped by climate change. Who knows what else they might find in the future as the permafrost clears away.

Although they don’t know exactly what happened to the young creature, it could be that it died in its sleep.

Experts that took part in the expedition came up with a version that the foal could have drowned after getting into some kind of a natural trap,” Grigory Savvinov, deputy head of the North-Eastern Federal University, told The Siberian Times. 

There are no obvious wounds on the animal so an autopsy will determine what the animal’s last day looked like and how it finally perished.

There are vast quantities of mercury in the permafrost. With global warming, it’s now seeping away

Researchers found surprisingly large quantities of mercury in the permafrost of the northern hemisphere. As temperatures rise and ice continues to melt, the mercury can be released, with significant consequences for both wildlife and mankind.

Maps of mercury concentrations (micrograms of mercury per square meter) in Northern hemisphere permafrost zones for four soil layers: 0-30 centimeters, 0-100 centimeters, 0-300 centimeters, and permafrost. The permafrost map represents the mercury bound to frozen organic matter below the Active Layer Depth (ALD) and above 300 cm depth. Credit: Schuster et al./GRL/AGU.

The tentacles of climate change are long and far-reaching. As temperatures rise, it brings along a number of unforeseen changes. Rising temperatures are threatening the oceans, causing more hurricanes, and even causing a coffee crisis. Now, we can add mercury to that long list of problems.

A new study reports that permafrost soils contain more mercury than the rest of the planet’s soils, atmosphere, and oceans combined.

In the new study, geologists assessed the concentrations in permafrost cores from Alaska. They found that permafrost soils contain two times more mercury than soils elsewhere in the world — an unexpected discovery with important consequences.

“This discovery is a game-changer,” said Paul Schuster, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado and lead author of the new study. “We’ve quantified a pool of mercury that had not been done previously, and the results have profound implications for better understanding the global mercury cycle.”

This wouldn’t normally be a very high concern, but the problem is that temperatures are now rising.

Permafrost in Alaska is thawing, and a new study finds northern permafrost soils are the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet, storing nearly twice as much mercury as all other soils, the ocean, and the atmosphere combined. Credit: John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation, CC BY 2.0.

Mercury tends to bind with organic material in the soil and gets stuck with that soil. As it gets buried by sediment, it becomes frozen into permafrost, where it can remain for thousands of years. But if temperatures rise, all that can change. When temperatures rise and the permafrost melts, mercury isn’t fixed in place anymore. Instead of being frozen in the permafrost, it can also be transported by waters or microorganisms, or it can slowly seep on its own.

“There would be no environmental problem if everything remained frozen, but we know the Earth is getting warmer,” Schuster said. “Although measurement of the rate of permafrost thaw was not part of this study, the thawing permafrost provides a potential for mercury to be released—that’s just physics.”

Locally, the effects could be dramatic. From microorganisms, things can slowly move up the food chain, and like most toxins, they tend to gather higher up the food chain — and potentially end up on our plates.

The release of mercury could also have far-reaching global consequences. If released into the atmosphere, it could travel quickly at the mercy of air currents, possibly ending up as far as thousands of kilometers away.

But we don’t really know how much and how far the mercury can travel. Scientists are also unsure how much of the stored mercury would affect ecosystems if the permafrost were to thaw.

Schuster hopes to analyze that those issues in further studies, understanding how the mercury can affect humans and natural environments.

“24 percent of all the soil above the equator is permafrost, and it has this huge pool of locked-up mercury,” he said. “What happens if the permafrost thaws? How far will the mercury travel up the food chain? These are big-picture questions that we need to answer.”

Journal Reference: Paul F. Schuster et al. Permafrost Stores a Globally Significant Amount of Mercury. DOI: 10.1002/2017GL075571.

Thawing permafrost might cost us trillions in the long run

Specialists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Colorado estimate that the effects of climate change are going to take a hefty toll on our economy — $326 trillion in damage by the year 2200, roughly $201 million each hour.

However, new research indicates that even this huge sum might be underestimating the true scope of the impact global warming would have on our lives — and the secret is melting slowly under the Arctic’s soil, the Christian News Monitor reports.

Photograph captured in Gates of the Arctic National Park, where a bank of this lake thawed, allowing the Okokmilaga River to cut through and drain it to sea. Image via flikr

Photograph captured in Gates of the Arctic National Park, where a bank of this lake thawed, allowing the Okokmilaga River to cut through and drain it to sea.

Credit:NPS Climate Change Response


How warmer soil will cost us big bucks

Permafrost is soil that consistently stays below the freezing point of water, 0 °C (32 °F), for at least two years. It’s very rich in organics, as being half-frozen tends to make bacteria lazy and slow to decompose fallen leaves, dead plants and so forth, and the frozen soil can trap pockets of gases more easily.

In its current, chilled condition, it has an important role to play in trapping greenhouse gases, but rising temperatures mean that all those organics will be fed upon and the gases stored there for thousands or million of years will be free to move through the soil, releasing a massive quantity of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This chart of average annual ground temperature from one location near Fairbanks illustrates the warming trend observed across the Arctic that is causing permafrost to melt. Image credits to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

This chart of average annual ground temperature from one location near Fairbanks illustrates the warming trend observed across the Arctic that is causing permafrost to melt.
Image credit: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

“The impacts will be felt around the world,” study co-author Chris Hope of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School said in an email to the Christian Science Monitor.

According to a letter published in Nature Climate Change, if we take into account the melting permafrost – currently holding 1,700 gigatons or 1.7 trillion tons of carbon –  the predicted economic impact of climate change increases from $326 trillion to $369 trillion by 2200 – a whopping 13% increase.

To come to this number, researchers first calculated the rate at which the permafrost might release its gases. Then, based on this estimation, they predicted the cost to mitigate the effects of the additional carbon and methane.

That’s a lot of money, but..

But what exactly does “cost of climate change” mean? Surely we won’t be spending $369 trillion on air conditioning! Hehe, well that’s included there too, but the sum also takes into account factors from loss of agricultural production as crops fail due to desertification or freak weather and the civil unrest that stems from it, political breakdown, the expected growth of the toll on public health systems, ecosystems, loss of coast to rising seas, even the increase in frequency of natural disasters.

Because melting permafrost comprises a significant chunk of the anticipated economic damage of climate change, focusing on the problem should help mitigate its detrimental effects:

“We want to use these models to help us make better decisions—linking scientific and economic models together is a way to help us do that,” Hope said. “We need to estimate how much it will cost if we do nothing, how much it will cost if we do something, and how much we need to spend to cut back greenhouse gases.”


siberian hole

Scientists have finally climbed to the bottom of one of Siberia’s mysterious holes

Scientists have finally climbed to the bottom of one of Siberia’s mysterious holes, and they have come up with some interesting information – and some amazing pics.

siberian hole

In case you’re not up to date, scientists started observing some mysterious craters in Siberia. The pseudoscience media had a field day – and so did conspiracy theorists. Could it be aliens? War testing? Meteorites? Sorry to burst your bubble, but those were never really valid options. Despite not having definite evidence, Russian geologists attributed the craters to methane and raised some serious concerns regarding the release of permafrost methane.

But now, scientists from the Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration have worked their way down into the bottom of the largest hole in order to find some answers. The hole is 16 metres down to its floor, but at its bottom, there lies a frozen lake which is another 10 meters deep. It took a while to be able to explore it, because researchers had to wait for the water to freeze over – otherwise, the descent would have turned into a muddy bath in a waterfall.

What they found at first is that temperature in the hole is higher than expected. This has significant implications, because the area is also at a tectonic edge. The extra temperature could be caused by the friction and stress, but it could also be caused by gas explosions – which many believe are responsible for the holes’ creation.

“We took all the probes we planned, and made measurements,” Vladimir Pushkarev, director of the Russian Centre for Arctic Exploration, told The Siberian Times. “Now scientists need time to process all the data and only then can they draw conclusions.”

It’s also not clear if the holes are new, or if they are fairly old but no one actually noticed them until now. Rock samples and cores from the ice should also clear that out; geochemical testing and isotope analysis will likely yield the much needed answers. Researchers will also study satellite data from the 80s to see if the holes existed back then.

All images and original cover: The Siberian Times.

Scientists revive 700 year old virus to see if it still “works”

Scientists have resurrected a 700 year old virus form Canadian permafrost and showed that even after several centuries of lumbering, viruses can remain… well. virulent. This could have significant implications, because as global warming continues melt more and more permafrost, unknown viruses could be released into the environment – and there’s currently no way of telling what the effects will be on modern plants, animals, and (ultimately) humans.

An image of frozen caribou feces. Image credits: Brian Moorman.

The virus in case was eloquently named ancient caribou feces associated virus (aCFV); at least the name is very descriptive. The virus remained frozen in the Canadian permafrost, so its DNA was still in very good shape and was easily separated from that of the caribou. They proceeded to isolate the virus and see if it still has the ability to infect hosts – the selected host was a tobacco plant. Eric Delwart, a researcher at the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco explains:

“We demonstrate that genetic material from ancient viruses associated with caribou fecal matter was cryogenically preserved for at least seven centuries and that the cloned DNA genome of one of these viruses replicated and spread systemically in an extant plant,” Delwart wrote in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The theory Delwart had is that viruses can become active after being frozen for centuries, or even millennia. Earlier this year, French researchers found a 30,000 year old Russian virus that was frozen in permafrost and brought it back to life. They suspected that it can still be virulent, but they didn’t try it to see if it still “works”. Delwart did; aCFV infected a tobacco plant, but didn’t appear to cause any outward symptoms of disease, probably because the plant wasn’t the natural host of the virus. In order to prove that the plant is actually infected, the team sequenced the genomes of newly-grown leaves on the plant and was able to detect and isolate the virus affecting the plant, which was already multiplying. Which begs the question – why are we poking around, seeing if ancient viruses can still go viral? The answer: because this is a problem we might have to face sooner rather than later.

“As climate change accelerates the melting of arctic ice, it is possible that ancient viral particles and the associated nucleic acids could be released into the environment,” he wrote. “If such virions are infectious, their release could contribute to the diversity of circulating viruses.”

Experimenting with the virus allows us to better understand and prepare ourselves for the possible future reemergence of ancient viruses. For example, now we know that this virus can still infect hosts. We don’t know what it used to infect, if it can cause damage, but this does shed some light on what may be down the road for us as more ice melts.

Journal Reference: Terry Fei Fan Nga, Li-Fang Chenc, Yanchen Zhoua,b, Beth Shapirod, Mathias Stillerd, Peter D. Heintzmand, Arvind Varsanie,f,g, Nikola O. Kondova, Walt Wonga, Xutao Denga,b, Thomas D. Andrewsh, Brian J. Moormani, Thomas Meulendykj, Glen MacKayh, Robert L. Gilbertsonc, and Eric Delwart. Preservation of viral genomes in 700-y-old caribou feces from a subarctic ice patch. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1410429111

Mysterious Siberian craters attributed to methane. Permafrost methane release might have begun

Remember the “mysterious” craters in Siberia? You know, the ones which “no one could explain”? Well, geologists had a pretty good idea what was happening, and the studies they recently conducted confirmed their theories. The craters are caused by methane seeping from the melting permafrost.

The crater in Siberia is 30 meters wide, and probably over 100 meters deep. It was caused by methane.

Air near the bottom of the crater contained very high concentrations of methane – about 9.6%. In case you’re wondering, the normal concentration of methane in air is somewhere at 0.000179%. So, sorry to burst your bubble guys, but there was never any serious talk about meteorite crashes, missile explosions or aliens. If you’ve read that somewhere, you can just cross it off your list of serious science journalism.

The Russian researchers from the  Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard working in the area attribute the hole formation to the abnormally hot Yamal summers of 2012 and 2013, which were warmer than usual by an average of about 5°C.  What does global warming have to do with this? Well, the permafrost has huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide trapped in it. If it starts to melts, it starts to release those gases and dramatically exacerbates global warming. The only questions is if this warming was caused by the two abnormally hot winters, or, as Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten, a geochemist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany believes, by a slow and steady thaw in the region.

The depths of the craters (there are quite many) are not known, but when Russian scientists lowered a 50 meter cable with a camera to it, they couldn’t even see the bottom – so it’s much deeper than that. They believe there is a pool of water somewhere between 70 and 80 meters, but its impossible at the moment to say how deep that pool really is.

 “Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” says Andrei Plekhanov, one of the scientists working in the area. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running, it’s rather spooky.”

There are several risks associated with this phenomenon. The most obvious would be of someone actually falling in such a crater, but in the remote areas of Siberia, the risk is fairly small. Much more concerning is the risk of trapped methane threatening local communities and industries.

 “If [a release] happens at the Bovanenkovskoye gas field that is only 30 km away, it could lead to an accident, and the same if it happens in a village,” says Plekhanov.

crater siberia

However, in the long run, the risk remains global warming. If you look at a satellite picture of the area, you see countless rather similar holes, and though there’s not yet an official explanation as to how they came to be, it seems safe to say that permafrost methane leakage is also responsible. The accelerated effect this phenomenon will lead has not yet been studied.



A 30,000 year-old virus is active again after it thawed from Siberian permafrost

It sounds like the synopsis for an apocalyptic movie: scientists uncover a dormant 30,000 years old virus trapped frozen deep in the Siberian permafrost, after it thawed however the researchers were astonished to find the virus was still active and began to infect. The bad news: it’s not a movie plot, this is for real and it was just recently announced to the public. The good news: the ancient virus doesn’t affect humans, just amoebas as far as we can tell for now. The discovery still raises a sum of important questions: what if the virus was indeed capable of infecting humans? How long or what are the actual chances that a given virus can survive for such a long time? Will episodes such as these become common in light of permafrost melting in the Siberian regions and other similar parts of the world as a result of climate change?

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, said: “This is the first time we’ve seen a virus that’s still infectious after this length of time.”

The ancient virus was discovered buried deep in ice some 30 m (100 feet) and belongs to a class of giant viruses that were discovered 10 years ago, called Pithovirus sibericum. Like you might imagine, there are a number of peculiarities about it. For one, it’s extremely large; so large that it can be observed via microscope measuring 1.5 micrometres in length. It’s the biggest of its class found so far.


The virus only infects amoebas, not humans.

The other peculiar thing about it is that it’s still active after 30,000 years. It hasn’t infected anything since, but as soon as it was taken to a lab, French scientists found it munches on amoebas – single celled organisms.

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba – but it won’t infect a human cells,” said Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS.

What if the virus could have affected humans, though? That’s the big question that’s on everybody’s mind. Smallpox for instance, an infectious disease responsible for 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century, has been completely eradicated. Not one single case has been reported in the past few years. What if a new strain of smallpox or some other ancient killer virus that affects human gets dug up next time?

An ancient strain

Since the 1970s, the permafrost has retreated and reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further. The local government doesn’t mind much of this, however, and is seeing at as an opportunity to begin exploiting resources. Drilling and digs means that there’s a chance even more viruses such as this might surface.

“It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from,” Prof Claverie warns.

Considering that there hasn’t really been a precedent such as this, how common are such ancient virus re-activation events? Was this just a fluke?

“That’s the six million dollar question,” said Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham, who was commenting on the research.

“Finding a virus still capable of infecting its host after such a long time is still pretty astounding – but just how long other viruses could remain viable in permafrost is anyone’s guess. It will depend a lot on the actual virus. I doubt they are all as robust as this one.”

He added: “We freeze viruses in the laboratory to preserve them for the future. If they have a lipid envelope – like flu or HIV, for example – then they are a bit more fragile, but the viruses with an external protein shell – like foot and mouth and common cold viruses – survive better.

“But it’s the freezing-thawing that poses the problems, because as the ice forms then melts there’s a physical damaging effect. If they do survive this, then they need to find a host to infect and they need to find them pretty fast.”

Canadian Arctic bacterium offers clues to life on Mars

A team of Canadian researchers has discovered a bacterium that thrives in the Arctic regions, much below freezing point, at -15 degrees C in one the coldest temperature ever reported for bacterial growth.

canadiam permafrost extremophiles

The discovery of the bacterium Planococcus halocryophilus OR1 was made in Ellesmere Island, Canada, a part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, well in the Arctic archipelago. But now here’s the cool thing – if we can find bacterium on Earth, in these extremely low temperature conditions, why not find them on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or on Europa, or even Mars?

The team of researchers screened nearly 200 separate high Arctic microbes in order to find the exact one which can adapt to these temperatures. They noticed that a strain of Planococcus halocryophilus multiplied surprisingly much in the permafrost simulated conditions, basically thriving in this environment.

“We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water found within the frozen permafrost on Ellesmere Island,” Prof. Lyle Whyte from the Deptartment of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University, said in a press statement. “The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature (~-16ºC), creating a habitable but very harsh environment. It’s not the easiest place to survive but this organism is capable of remaining active (i.e. breathing) to at least -25ºC in permafrost.”

bacterium extremophile

After figuring out which bacteria does so well in permafrost, the next step was to find out just how, and why it is doing. After studying its genomic sequence, as well as other molecular traits, they noticed that it adapts very well to salty conditions. This happens due to its cell structure, function and high level of cold adapted proteins. This even consists of alteration to the membrane that covers the bacterium and guards it against the harsh environment.

Apart from this, the researchers also observed that the bacteria has a molecular way of preventing itself from freezing, keeping the microbe from freezing solid while also protecting it from the negative effects of the briny environment.

The study seems to suggest that as time passes, we will find more and more extremophiles, and that similar life forms are likely to exist in our Solar System and perhaps (why not?), even outside our solar system.