Anything in deep freeze was supposed to be safe—for forever.
Such as our toxic wastes. Such as the crop seeds we’ll need in case of a global catastrophe and food shortage.
But we can’t count on the cold anymore. Climate change has changed all that, as evidenced by the recent breach into the Global Seed Vault.
Not so permanent permafrost
The National Snow and Ice Data Center defines permafrost as any rock or soil remaining at or below the freezing point of water (32 degrees Fahrenheit) for two or more years. Permafrost is not determined by soil moisture content, overlying snow cover or location; it is solely designated by temperature. Permafrost may contain more than 30 percent ice, no ice at all, be overlain by several feet of snow or clear of all snow cover.
In the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, permafrost occurs on 24 percent of the landmass. It commonly has a depth of two to 490 feet, though depths of almost 5,000 feet are known. The content of soil affected by permafrost often includes water, accumulated organic matter (biota) and methane produced from biota decay when temperatures were warmer. The presence of permafrost prevents such decay and methane emissions. Water contained in the soil is present in the form of ice, which binds the composite materials together. The ice—often close to the surface—prevents water flow, so permafrost land tends to be poorly drained and to be swamp or peatlands when the top, active layer thaws briefly in summer.
Permafrost thaws when the land surface is disturbed or when temperatures above the surface exceed 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Anthropogenic activities have now elevated CO2 in the atmosphere, causing the subsequent warming to thaw permafrost, enabling decay of biota to resume and stored methane to be emitted into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate.
And just such a melting recently made its mark on the world’s repository of seeds.
Global Seed Vault swamped
In Svalbard, Norway, on the island of Spitsbergen deep inside the Arctic Circle, sits the “doomsday” Global Seed Vault. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide fail-safe protection; a thought-to-be-impregnable deep freeze built to defend millions of food crops from climate change, natural disasters and wars and to ensure humanity’s food supply forever. In October 2015, seeds were withdrawn for the first time, because of Syria’s civil war.
At the end of 2016, the world’s hottest year on record, unusually warm Arctic temperatures caused melting and heavy rain—when light snow should have been falling. Water gushed into the vault’s entrance tunnel. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, where almost a million packets of seeds—each a variety of an important food crop—rest.
But the breakthrough does make us wonder about the integrity of the vault—which is supposed to operate without the help of humans. Will it truly be a lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes?
Climate change pushed the permafrost above the melting point and what was supposed to last for eternity didn’t.
North American continent crumbling and Siberia collapsing
According to a study published in the journal Geology in December 2016, huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. Mud, silt and gravel make streams murkier and limit the growth of aquatic plants at the base of the food chain. This permafrost decay, with its potential to accelerate global warming, is affecting 52,000 square miles of Canada—an expanse the size of Alabama.
In Siberia, the Batagaika Crater, a megaslump caused in part by the thawing of permafrost, and others like it are transforming the rolling tundra landscape into large new valleys and lakes. The crater is not only releasing carbon dioxide but vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2.
Climate change confusing caribou
This widespread thaw of permafrost is already having direct impacts on people. Warmer water and increased sediment loads are harming lake trout, an important source of food for native communities. Changes to the land surface are also disrupting caribou breeding and migration; and in some places, the disappearing permafrost has destroyed traditional food-storage cellars.
Four to five million people live in the Arctic (with half living in Russia). There are several sizeable cities and major extractive industries—particularly gas and oil—supported by an extensive infrastructure that includes airports, bridges, dams, pipelines, port facilities, railways and roads. Cities and smaller settlements encompass homes, hospitals, schools, industries and businesses, as well as water and sewage treatment plants. Many of these are built on what were once considered solid permafrost foundations, often less than nine or 10 feet deep.
Due to rapid climate change, permafrost melting is expected to accelerate and become more widespread throughout the 21st century. In a decade or so, it is likely that many more structures will be at risk of collapse because of the melting ground on which they are built. Unless advancing technology is able to replace melting permafrost with an affordable, durable, load-bearing foundation, all existing buildings and structures located on permafrost with bases less than 16 feet deep will probably be damaged or destroyed before 2100.
Now, only the onset of a new Ice Age can keep the phrase “permanently frozen” from becoming an oxymoron.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,