What Natali describes is the visible, dramatic effects of a rapidly warming Arctic. The permafrost – up until now, permanently frozen land and soil – is thawing out, and revealing its hidden secrets. Alongside Pleistocene fossils are massive carbon and methane emissions, toxic mercury, and ancient diseases.
The organic-rich permafrost holds an estimated 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon. “That’s about twice as much carbon in the atmosphere, and three times as much carbon than that stored in all the world’s forests”, says Natali. She explains that between 30% and 70% of the permafrost may melt before 2100, depending on how effectively we respond to climate change. “The 70% is business as usual, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, and 30% is if we vastly reduce our fossil fuel emissions… Of the 30-70% that thaws, the carbon locked up in organic matter will begin to be broken down by microbes, they use it as fuel or energy, and they release it as CO2 or methane.”
But methane and CO2 are not the only things being released from the once frozen ground. In the summer of 2016, a group of nomadic reindeer herders began falling sick from a mysterious illness. Rumours began circling of the “Siberian plague”, last seen in the region in 1941. When a young boy and 2,500 reindeer died, the disease was identified: anthrax. Its origin was a defrosting reindeer carcass, a victim of an anthrax outbreak 75 years previously. The 2018 Arctic report card speculates that, “diseases like the Spanish flu, smallpox or the plague that have been wiped out might be frozen in the permafrost.” A French study in 2014 took a 30,000 year-old virus frozen within permafrost, and warmed it back up in the lab. It promptly came back to life, 300 centuries later.
Long-preserved human archaeology may also be emerging, but just as quickly lost. A frozen Palaeo-Eskimo site in Greenland, preserved for some 4,000 years, is at risk of being washed away. This is just one of an estimated 180,000 archaeological sites preserved in the permafrost, often with soft tissues and clothing that uniquely remain intact but would rot quickly if exposed. Adam Markham, of the Union of Concerned Scientists has said, “with rapid, human-caused climate change, many sites or the artefacts they contain, will be lost before they have been discovered.”