NASA Warns Thawing Permafrost Could Free Microbes Locked Away for Thousands of Years

Melting permafrost will release strange microbes into the atmosphere in coming years, scientists believe. They fear that ancient microbes, suspended in natural time capsules of permafrost, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of years, could have serious consequences for humans. For example, more than 100 diverse microorganisms in Siberia's permafrost have been found to be resistant to antibiotics.

Permafrost is home to "untold" amounts of microbes and other chemicals, NASA said yesterday, with large regions of frozen ground melting at an increasing rate.

Kimberley Miner, a climate researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is working to characterize microbes frozen in permafrost. "Everyone is racing as fast as they can to understand what's going on at the poles," she said in a press release. "The more we understand, the better prepared we will be for the future."

Contact with such potential biological hazards would not be impossible or even necessarily difficult. Settlements, industrial sites and military projects have all been built on permafrost in recent decades.

"These are microbes that have co-evolved with things like giant sloths or mammoths, and we have no idea what they could do when released into our ecosystems," Miner said in October last year. "We have a very small understanding of what kind of extremophiles—microbes that live in lots of different conditions for a long time—have the potential to re-emerge."

Permafrost, defined as any ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years straight, covers large portions of our planet. Almost a quarter of land in the northern hemisphere is thought to be covered by it.

A gradually warming climate will cause permafrost to melt over time, causing a multitude of problems for humans in addition to the release of microbes. These include the release of vast pockets of carbon dioxide. The permafrost in the Arctic alone is estimated to store around 1,700 billion metric tons of carbon including carbon dioxide and methane.

If this were to be released all in one go, it would be equal to more than 50 times the amount of fossil fuel emissions the world produced in 2019, according to NASA.

Miner said: "Current models predict that we'll see a pulse of carbon released from the permafrost to the atmosphere within the next hundred years, potentially sooner."

But melting permafrost also has other immediate consequences for humans on the planet right now. For one thing, many northern communities are built on permafrost. When this permafrost thaws it can make the ground less stable, producing giant sinkholes and damaging homes and infrastructure.

In order to better understand the scale of the issue, scientists are using Earth observations from space. Upcoming satellite missions like the European Space Agency's Copernicus Hyperspectral Imaging Mission will help map changes in land cover, for example.

According to NASA, the global temperature has risen by 1 degree Celsius since 1880, while the extent of Arctic sea ice has decreased 13 percent per decade since 1979. Scientists think the current warming trend is unequivocally the result of human activity since the mid-20th century.

Glacier
A stock photo of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Scientists believe that melting permafrost could release harmful microbes. mifaso/Getty