Collapsing houses and escaping diseases when frozen soil melts

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

In northerly parts of the world where it is very cold, even where the top layer of the ground is covered in plants in summer it is frozen underneath [1]. This frozen layer may start just 10-15cm underground [1]. The frozen layer is called permafrost: a mixture of soil, rock and sand held together by ice [1]. Swipe for a diagram!

20% of permafrost surrounding the North Pole is thawing (melting) rapidly and becoming unstable [2,5]. Unstable areas can collapse, leading to landslides and floods [2]. This results in release of greenhouse gases [2] – we learnt about this in detail in yesterday’s post. But hundreds of thousands of people in Alaska, Canada and Russia live on permafrost [6]; how does melting permafrost affect them directly?

1) Infrastructure: when the ice is frozen it’s harder than concrete [1]. But when pockets of ice melt, the land can collapse suddenly: several meters of soil can be destabilised within a few days [2]. Anything sitting on top of where this happens, such as a house or road, will be damaged or destroyed [1,2,3].

The threat of collapsing ground has made it too dangerous for some Arctic communities to travel [2]; they are unable to reach their game traps, so they are having to find alternatives to their traditional food source [2].

2) Disease: when ancient permafrost melts, microbes that have been stored for thousands of years can come back to life [7,8]. Some of these microbes can infect humans and cause disease [7,9]. However, this is not yet a major health risk [7].

In 2016 an outbreak of anthrax (a modern disease) that hospitalised 20 people in Russia is thought to have been triggered by the exceptionally hot summer thawing frozen soil; a dead reindeer thawed, releasing anthrax spores which then infected humans [7,10,11,12].


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