Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - June 23rd, 2022
Mass transportation. Fossil fuels. Deforestation. Industrial manufacturing. We have heard it all before. These manmade sources of global warming have been stressed by environmental experts in mass efforts to limit a worsening climate crisis.
Meanwhile, a select number of Russian scientists have begun to analyze a developing issue that exists in a seemingly inevitable cycle. Permafrost is simply a layer of frozen ground at or beneath Earth’s surface.
This frozen layer of ground has appeared frequently in Russian climate science reports. This is no surprise as two-thirds of the country lies upon it.[i] So, what exactly are the scientists studying? Well, the permafrost is melting fast, faster than ever anticipated, which can certainly be linked to the aforementioned sources of global warming.
But the issue of permafrost is also very much natural. And it exists in a cross-reliant cycle with manmade factors simultaneously.
Going back a whopping three million years ago, temperatures plunged well below the negatives Fahrenheit in Siberia, freezing mass amounts of soil underground. Temperatures continued to fluctuate over long periods of time, freezing and thawing the ground. This is what is now identified as permafrost, covering a quarter of the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere.[ii]
This is the same land undergoing mass amounts of deforestation and wildfires, which, coupled with rising temperatures following the Industrial Revolution, has caused the soil to heat. Now, this heating would not be as severe a problem as it currently is if it were not for the organic material that is housed in this soil. The bacterium in the soil is alive again, like a freaky Frankenstein but for environmental scientists. It is now feasting on the defrosting biomass, made up of the dead living material that once existed on the ground millions of years ago. During this microbial process, carbon dioxide and methane are released, filling the atmosphere above Russia with mass amounts of these greenhouse gases.
And it doesn’t stop here.
The greenhouse gases warm our atmosphere by trapping the heat that is on its way out into space, thus, leading to a rise in global temperatures. This hotter climate causes the permafrost to melt even more, creating an almost logarithmic scale of temperature increase and gas emission.
Trofim Maximov sums this up rather simply: “It’s a natural process. Which means that, unlike purely anthropogenic processes, once it starts, you can’t really stop it.”
You can’t stop it.
This is why permafrost is so alarming: it will continue to worsen as emissions increase from manmade factors, creating an endless sequence of natural and artificial harmony.
While this seems to only add on to the list of disconcerting sources of carbon and methane, the people of Russia are at the frontlines of its consequences.
The vast lands of Russia are changing through a process called thermokarst. Yedoma, a classification of permafrost with a high ice concentration, thaws, creating large depressions in the land that can fill with water. This has ruined infrastructure, natural waterways, food chains, and human-built structures, impacting both Russian people and wildlife.[iii] Thermokarst has also negatively impacted the trademark boreal forests of East Europe.
Most notably, the buckling grounds of Russia caused a large diesel tank in Norilsk to collapse, spilling 21,000 tons of diesel into the Arctic Ocean, as well as Indigenous communities.[iv] For comparison, 37,000 tons of oil were spilled in the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. [v]
Even anthrax is spreading in Russia through reindeer, passing on to human populations.
The list of violations of basic human rights continues to grow, all linking back to melting ground.
When I first read about this issue in my January 17th edition of the New Yorker Magazine, I was honestly just confused. I read about environmental policy every day, but I had never even heard of this before. And that was the scariest part. Why is this not in every science journal available? Why is the fact that permafrost holds twice as much carbon than that in our atmosphere not widely known and recognized?
We are at a point in this fight against climate change where we are almost desensitized. Just another wildfire. Just another oil spill. Just another source of carbon. When will it be enough? This mindset has and will continue to not only hurt our environment but also us. Denial will be our demise in this effort.
References [i] Martin, M. (2022, January 22). Why Russia's thawing permafrost is a global problem. NPR.org. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2022/01/22/1075108299/why-russiasthawing-permafrost-is-a-global-problem [ii] Yaffa, J. (2022, January 17). The Great Siberian Thaw. The New Yorker, 30–39. [iii] Nielsen, L. (2015, August 17). The ground changing under our feet – thermokarsts. Frontier Scientists. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://frontierscientists.com/2014/04/groundchanging-underfoot-thermokarsts/ [iv] Russia: Aftermath of Nornickel's 21,000 tonnes diesel spill on Environment & Indigenous Communities. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. (2020, October 15). Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/nornickelaftermath-environmental-impacts-of-diesel-spill-on-indigenous-territory/ [v] Leahy, S. (2021, May 4). Exxon Valdez changed the oil industry forever-but new threats emerge. National Geographic Environment. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/oil-spills-30-years-after-exxonvaldez