Permafrost and Pandemic

  • IASbaba
  • September 15, 2021
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  • GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation 

Permafrost and Pandemic

Context: The latest IPCC report has warned that increasing global warming will result in reductions in Arctic permafrost which is expected to release greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

What is Permafrost?

  • It is defined as ground (soil, rock and any included ice or organic material) that remains at or below zero degree Celsius for at least two consecutive years.
  • Permafrost is spread across an area of over 23 million square kilometers, covering about 15% of the land area of the globe.

What will be the immediate effects as permafrost melts due to increasing global temperatures?

  • Physical Infrastructure in Danger: The first impacts that are very rapid will affect countries where roads or buildings were constructed on permafrost. 
    • The Russian railways are an example. 
    • In the northwest of Canada, there is a short section of the road where it has been necessary to chill the ground (costing $4 million for 500m) to make the foundation of the road colder than it is, in order to preserve the permafrost. 
  • Greenhouse Gas Emission: If the Permafrost ground begins to thaw (melt), the organic materials frozen will become available for microbiota to break down. In some environments, the biota will release carbon dioxide and methane.

What is the potential of GHG emission from Permafrost thaw?

  • The total quantity of carbon that is now buried in the permafrost is estimated at about 1500 billion tonnes and the top three meters of the ground has about 1000 billion tonnes.
  • The world currently emits into the atmosphere, approximately 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year.
  •  So, if the permafrost thaws and releases even only one per cent of the frozen carbon in any one year, it can nullify the measures taken by world to control industrial emissions.

So, do we need more studies to understand these emissions that can happen?

  • Yes, we do. The majority of the effort so far has been on estimating how much carbon is in the permafrost. That’s where the scientific effort has been. 
  • Currently, there is some evidence, that some permafrost regions have changed from being a carbon storehouse to being places that are net emitters of carbon.
  • Another thing, which is to be studied is the increase in the number of forest fires. In 2021 Russia witnessed a forest fire whose total area was the size of Portugal. 
  • Usually, after a fire, we expect the forest to grow back in the next 50 years to 60 years. This restores the carbon stock in the ecosystem. 
  • But in the tundra, the peat is where the organic material is and this takes a very long time to accumulate. So if we burn peat and release it into the atmosphere, then it will take centuries to restore that carbon stock at ground level. So that’s another problem which has to be looked into.

Can thawing Permafrost release new bacteria or viruses? Can it cause another pandemic?

  • The answer is that permafrost has many secrets. Recently, mammoths were found in the permafrost in Russia. 
  • And some of these mammoth carcasses when they begin to degrade again may reveal bacteria that were frozen thousands of years ago. These bacteria & viruses may cause surprises 
  • When the permafrost was formed thousands of years ago, there weren’t many humans who lived in that region which was necessarily very cold. However, the environment now is so much more suitable than during the Ice Age for not just human life, but also the evolution or development of viruses and bacteria. 

Connecting the dots:

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