DATE: September 6, 2017
SNIP: You can find evidence of a changing climate everywhere on Earth. But nowhere are the changes more dramatic than in the Arctic.
Our world’s northern polar region is warming twice as fast as the global average. And the consequences are easy to spot. On average, Arctic sea ice extent is shrinking every summer. The Greenland ice sheet is becoming unstable.
But perhaps most disturbing are the changes occurring underground in the permafrost. Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil that covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. It acts like a giant freezer, keeping microbes, carbon, and soil locked in place.
Now it’s melting. And things are getting weird and creepy: The ground warps, folds, and caves. Roadways built on top of permafrost have becoming wavy roller coasters through the tundra. And long-dormant microbes — some trapped in the ice for tens of thousands of years — are beginning to wake up, releasing equally ancient C02, and could potentially come to infect humans with deadly diseases.
To better understand the strange changes in the permafrost, I spoke with Robert Max Holmes, an earth systems scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center. When I reached him by phone, he was in Bethel, Alaska, a small outpost town 400 miles west of Anchorage, and had just come back from an eight-day research and teaching expedition in the wilderness.
A week earlier, Holmes and his students had set up temperature sensors in the soil near their encampment. Their first reading was 0.3°C. “It’s barely frozen. And we just sort of sat there stunned. You don’t know whether to cry or what. Because you’re just like: My God, this whole thing is just going to change in a big way.”