Thawing permafrost in the Arctic could unlock toxic waste buried for decades: New study highlights risks
Context- With rising global temperatures, thawing permafrost is likely to destabilise thousands of industrial sites and linked contaminated areas in the Arctic, which could result in the spread of toxic substances across the region, according to a new study. Nearly 2,100 industrial sites and between 5,600 and 10,000 contaminated sites are under threat of destabilisation by the end of this century.
The study, ‘Thawing permafrost poses environmental threat to thousands of sites with legacy industrial contamination’, was published in the journal Nature Communications earlier this year.
What is the issue?
- Contrary to common perception, the Arctic is far from an uninhabited and untouched region. It’s dotted with countless industrial facilities such as oilfields and pipelines, mines and military bases. All this infrastructure is built on permafrost, which was once believed to be perennially stable and reliable.
- The toxic waste from these industrial facilities has been buried in the permafrost, on the assumption that it would stay locked away permanently. But danger looms as the planet continues to heat up.
- A major problem is that for a long time (before and in the 1990s) the consequences of global warming and thawing permafrost were not taken into account and definitely underestimated.
- There are many engineering studies from that time that consider permafrost as a favourable condition for the disposal of industrial legacies and other wastes. Today, these former practices (some of which are still in use) are becoming an increasing problem as large parts of the Arctic are already affected by thawing permafrost
What is permafrost?
- Permafrost is essentially any ground that stays frozen — 0 degree Celsius or lower — for at least two years straight. These permanently frozen grounds are often found in Arctic regions such as Greenland, Alaska (the United States), Canada, Russia and Eastern Europe.
- According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), permafrost is composed of “a combination of soil, rocks and sand that are held together by ice. The soil and ice in permafrost stay frozen all year long.” However, although the ground remains perennially frozen, permafrost regions aren’t always covered with snow.
What are the findings of the study?
- It was because of these characteristics that countries and corporations began building infrastructure on the Arctic’s permafrost. The region witnessed a further expansion of industrial and economic development during the Cold War — it became a centre for resource extraction and military activities
- This led to the accumulation of industrial and toxic waste on or in permafrost which was never removed.
- “Known industrial waste types (in the region) include drilling and mining wastes, toxic substances like drilling muds and fluids, mine waste heaps, heavy metals, spilled fuels, and radioactive waste,” the study mentioned.
- But as the Arctic is getting warmer nearly four times as fast as the rest of the planet due to climate change, permafrost is thawing rapidly, which could destabilise not only the industrial sites but also the contaminated areas.
- And once the destabilisation takes place, toxic substances would be unleashed across the region, threatening numerous species living there and the health of people who depend on them.
- According to the study, as of now, around 1,000 of the known industrial sites and 2,200 to 4,800 of the known contaminated sites are already at risk of destabilising due to thawing permafrost. These numbers will jump to more than 2,100 industrial sites and 5,600 to 10,000 contaminated sites by the end of the century under the low emissions scenario consistent with the 2-degree Celsius global warming target.
What are the other consequences of thawing permafrost?
- According to experts, thawing permafrost can severely impact the planet. One of its most dangerous consequences is the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A 2022 report by NASA said, “Arctic permafrost alone holds an estimated 1,700 billion metric tons of carbon, including methane and carbon dioxide. That’s roughly 51 times the amount of carbon the world released as fossil fuel emissions in 2019.”
- Moreover, “Plant matter frozen in permafrost doesn’t decay, but when permafrost thaws, microbes within the dead plant material start to break the matter down, releasing carbon into the atmosphere,”
- A 2022 study by Columbia University observed that thawing permafrost would unleash thousands of dormant viruses and bacteria. Some of these “could be new viruses or ancient ones for which humans lack immunity and cures”.
Conclusion- Permafrost, which was once believed to be perennially stable is increasingly at risk of thawing. Globally concerted actions, to meet challenges arising out of it, are the need of the hour.
Syllabus- GS-3; Climate Change
Source- Indian Express