Fairbanks, Alaska is a place holding a marvelous a geological time bomb, according to scientists. No one knows exactly how big it is, but is home to a very large pool of organic remnants in the form of frozen soil. This frozen soil called permafrost contains many relics of the past that scientists have been digging up, like mammoth remains. And it’s over 1000 feet deep in some places, about the height of the Empire State Building.
Why is it dangerous? Because soils are naturally inclined to self-regulate, and the thawing of the permafrost soil threatens to release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. The scariest thing is that we know the deposits are large, but no one knows exactly how rapidly this carbon deposit can get released.
Back in the ’60s, the Army dug a tunnel so it could study this unique surface, which covers about a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. In northern Alaska, the temperature at some permafrost sites has risen by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in November. And in recent years, many spots have reached record temperatures.
Right now the permafrost carbon is inert and trapped in the frozen soil. But what happens when the soil thaws? That’s the question Dr. Thomas Douglas, a geochemist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and his colleagues are trying to figure out.
A few years ago, the researchers in Alaska ran a simple experiment. They brought big drills into the tunnel and cut out chunks of ice. “We collected pieces about the size of Coca-Cola cans,” he says, as he points out holes in the tunnel’s wall.
They took the ice back to the lab and let it slowly come up to room temperature. Then they looked for signs of life. A few days later, something started growing — slowly at first, but then like gangbusters.
“This is material that stayed frozen for 25,000 years,” Douglas says. “And given the right environmental conditions, it came back alive again vigorously.”
They were ancient bacteria. And once they warmed up, they were hungry. The bacteria started converting the carbon that’s in dead plants and animals into gases that cause climate change: carbon dioxide and methane.
That experiment was in the lab. But imagine these bacteria waking up, all around the Arctic, across Canada, Greenland and Russia. Last year, scientists started seeing signs of this happening in northern Alaska.
“We have evidence that Alaska has changed from being a net absorber of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to a net exporter of the gas back to the atmosphere,” says Charles Miller, a chemist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who measures gas emissions from Arctic permafrost.
This carbon threatens to form a feedback loop “over which we would have zero control,” Miller says. The gas, coming from the ground, warms the Earth, which in turn causes more gas to be released and more warming to occur.