The melting of the polar ice caps has been a topic of interest for the environmentalists ever since its effects were made clear. If you don’t know how bad the melting ice caps in the Earth’s cryosphere is, here is a shortlist. The most obvious thing is the rising of sea levels, with the melted water making its way into the oceans. But there are other disastrous effects to these ice caps melting. For one, did you even know the melting of ice caps makes the remaining ice melt faster?
If you’re wondering why it is so well, it’s because the ice sheets reflect almost 90% of the total radiation that falls on them back into the atmosphere. When the same radiation hits the land or oceans, it is not reflected but is in fact absorbed, thus making them release heat into our environment—a scary feedback loop. A lesser-known side effect like this is the permafrost and the devils frozen below us.
In the coldest parts of the world, there is a layer of the earth that stays frozen all year. Every summer, the soil above it thaws. But this deeper layer stays hard as a rock. This is permafrost.
Most of the permafrost is in the northern hemisphere, around the Arctic. That accounts for an area of about four million square miles. Permafrost can be called nature’s freezer in a way.
The catch is that the last part about permafrost not melting is actually changing and that is the problem. In the present times, we humans have an enormous carbon footprint growing exponentially every day with the fuels we burn and the food we produce. Which in turn is making the atmosphere get warmer. This temperature rise as an aftereffect is causing the permafrost to thaw and shrink.
This is happening so fast that, by the end of this century, the area of the Earth’s surface covered by permafrost will be reduced to a mere 400,000 square miles which accounts for a loss of 90%. When permafrost melts, the land above becomes unstable and leads to landslides. With the ground collapsing the structures erected by us humans, in those areas starts to fall apart. But the real problem is yet to come.
I called permafrost as nature’s freezer because when plants and animals here die, they don’t actually decompose. Instead, they become preserved in the frozen earth. I say that now because, when the permafrost melts, things get ugly as the dead plants and animals that had been frozen for years under the land starts to thaw out. And these dead plants and animals are the ones that are dangerous enough to cause a pandemic.
When these plants and animals, which are long dead, get exposed to the atmosphere and the bacteria, they start to decompose. This process leads to the release of more greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. But the serious issue of this lot is the possible outcome of a disease outbreak. We, humans, have conquered a lot of diseases and have even eradicated a few.
However, what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before? That is what happens when the permafrost thaws. Millions of microbes that have been under there sleeping for a long time come to life. We don’t yet know what may walk out of that cryopod.
According to research conducted in 2015 by the US and China, the 15,000-year-old Guliya ice cap plays host to 33 ancient virus groups, 28 of which are new to science. We don’t know anything about the 28 out of the 33 found. If these microbes are to be severely pathogenic and are to be exposed to the populations living near the areas of permafrost, we are looking at a situation nowhere different from what is going on right now.
We now know what effects a pandemic can bring even to our modern world. Even with all those exponential advancements in medicine, healthcare still seems to be a weaker suit for any nation, be it developed or developing when it comes to a pandemic because of the sheer sample space of the people who’ll get infected when the hell breaks loose.
Just remember that the ice that is melting up in the Arctic is not just about the rising sea levels. It is also about a very potential threat frozen and buried under us. The world has seen reports of outbreaks like this. The Siberian anthrax outbreak in 2016 was just really a warning. The permafrost is like a Pandora’s Box. The safer it is to keep it buried under for now, at least.
About the Author: I’m Monish, a free-spirit with a passion for art and science. A modern age ‘Jack of all trades.’