Arctic doomsday as melting ice could unleash Cold War radioactive waste and viruses

Climate change: The real danger of thawing Permafrost

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Researchers at Aberystwyth University and NASA are sounding the alarm bells on the unexpected consequences of the Arctic’s rapid thawing. According to a recent report published in the journal Nature Climate Change, a whole score of potentially nasty surprises waits to be found in the Arctic Circle. From Soviet nuclear reactors to previously undiscovered germs and pathogens, researchers from the UK and US have identified the key dangers likely trapped in the ice.

The majority of the Arctic permafrost, or frozen land, is estimated to date back to about one million years ago.

And with an estimated nine million square miles of permafrost at risk of thawing out, scientists are desperate to understand the environmental impact climate change will have on this part of the globe.

Climate forecasts suggest up to two-thirds of the Arctic’s near-surface permafrost is going to melt by 2100.

Even more worryingly, this part of the planet is warming three times as fast as the global rate.

Among the possible fallouts, is the release of Cold War-era nuclear waste and material back into the environment.

Between 1955 and 1990, the Soviet Union conducted some 130 nuclear tests in the air and near the ocean floor off the coast of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in northwest Russia.

The tests saw the Russian detonate more than 220 explosive devices, releasing in the process about 265 megatons of nuclear energy.

More than 100 decommissioned nuclear submarines have also been scuttled, or sunk, in the nearby Barents and Kara Seas.

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Similarly, the region has been contaminated by the US Cold War operation, including the Camp Century nuclear-powered under-ice research facility in Greenland.

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The Arctic’s deep permafrost also happens to be one of the few places on the planet that has not been fully exposed to modern antibiotics.

Scientists have already discovered more than 100 microorganisms in the Siberian permafrost that boasted a resistance to antibiotics.

Should the permafrost thaw, scientists fear the microbes could mix with meltwater and spawn a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

And as the Covid pandemic has shown last year, previously undiscovered viruses have the potential to cause a deadly, global pandemic.

Scientists are also concerned about the release of chemicals and by-products from the burning of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century.

The Arctic is also home to many metals that like mercury and arsenic, which have been mined for decades and have contaminated the environment.

Dr Arwyn Edwards, Reader in Biology at Aberystwyth University, said: “Changes in the Arctic’s climate and ecology will influence every part of the planet as it feeds carbon back to the atmosphere and raises sea levels.

“This review identifies how other risks can arise from the warming Arctic.

“It has long been a deep-freezer for a range of harmful things, not just greenhouse gases.

“We need to understand more about the fate of these harmful microbes and pollutants and nuclear materials to properly understand the threats they may pose.”

Dr Kimberley Miner, Earth and Climate Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, added: “It’s important to understand the secondary and tertiary impacts of these large-scale Earth changes such as permafrost thaw.

“While some of the hazards associated with the thaw of up to a million years of material have been captured, we are a long way from being able to model and predict exactly when and where they will happen. This research is critical.”

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