As Earth Warms, the Diseases That May Lie Within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry


permafrost-buried_basal_ice_525

By Sara Goudarzi, Scientific American – 30 October 16
Source: Reader Supported News

 

Scientists are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microbes emerging from a deep freeze

 

This past summer anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy in a remote part of Siberia. At least 20 other people, also from the Yamal Peninsula, were diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease after approximately 100 suspected cases were hospitalized. Additionally, more than 2,300 reindeer in the area died from the infection. The likely cause? Thawing permafrost. According to Russian officials, thawed permafrost—a permanently frozen layer of soil—released previously immobile spores of Bacillus anthracis into nearby water and soil and then into the food supply. The outbreak was the region’s first in 75 years.

Researchers have predicted for years that one of the effects of global warming could be that whatever is frozen in permafrost—such as ancient bacteria—might be released as temperatures climb. This could include infectious agents humans might not be prepared for, or have immunity to, the scientists said. Now they are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microorganisms emerging from a deep freeze.

Although anthrax occurs naturally in all soil and outbreaks unrelated to permafrost can occur, extensive permafrost thaw could increase the number of people exposed to anthrax bacteria. In a 2011 paper published in Global Health Action, co-authors Boris A. Revich and Marina A. Podolnaya wrote of their predictions: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

And permafrost is indeed thawing—at higher latitudes and to greater depths than ever before. In various parts of Siberia the active layer above permafrost can thaw to a depth of 50 centimeters every summer. This summer, however, there was a heat wave in the region, and temperatures hovered around 35 degrees Celsius—25 degrees warmer than usual. The difference possibly expanded or deepened the thaw and mobilized microorganisms usually stuck in rigid earth. Although scientists have yet to calculate the final depth, they postulate that it is a number that has not been seen in almost a century. Permafrost thaw overall could become widespread with temperatures only slightly higher than those at present, according to a 2013 study in Science. Heat waves in higher latitudes are becoming more frequent as well.

What thawing permafrost could unleash depends on the heartiness of the infectious agent involved. A lot of microorganisms cannot survive in extreme cold, but some can withstand it for many years. “B. anthracis are special because they are sporulating bacteria,” says Jean-Michel Claverie, head of the Mediterranean Institute of Microbiology and a professor at Aix-Marseille University in France. “Spores are extremely resistant and, like seeds, can survive for longer than a century.”

Viruses could also survive for lengthy periods. In 2014 and 2015 Claverie and his colleague Chantal Abergel published their findings on two still infectious viruses from a chunk of 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. Although Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum can infect only amoebas, the discovery is an indication that viruses that infect humans—such as smallpox and the Spanish flu—could potentially be preserved in permafrost.

Human viruses from even further back could also make a showing. For instance, the microorganisms living on and within the early humans who populated the Arctic could still be frozen in the soil. “There are hints that Neandertals and Denisovans could have settled in northern Siberia [and] were plagued by various viral diseases, some of which we know, like smallpox, and some others that might have disappeared,” Claverie says. “The fact that there might be an infection continuity between us and ancient hominins is fascinating—and might be worrying.”

Janet Jansson, who studies permafrost at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State, is not worried about ancient viruses. Several attempts to discover these infectious agents in corpses have come up empty, she notes. She does advocate, however, for further research to identify the wide range of permafrost-dwelling organisms, some of which could pose health risks. To accomplish that goal, she and others are using modern molecular tools—such as DNA sequencing and protein analysis—to categorize the properties of unknown microorganisms, sometimes referred to as microbial dark matter.

The likelihood and frequency of outbreaks similar to the one in Siberia will depend on the speed and trajectory of climate change. For instance, it is possible that another heat wave will expose the carcasses of animals infected by anthrax, Revich says. “The situation on the Yamal Peninsula has shown that the risk of the spread of anthrax is already real,” he adds.

In effect, infectious agents buried in the permafrost are unknowable and unpredictable in their timing and ferocity. Thus, researchers say thawing permafrost is not our biggest worry when it comes to infectious diseases and global warming. The more immediate, and certain, threat to humans is the widening geographical ranges of modern infectious diseases (and their carriers, such as mosquitoes) as the earth warms. “We now have dengue in southern parts of Texas,” says George C. Stewart, McKee Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and chair of the department of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Missouri. “Malaria is seen at higher elevations and latitudes as temperatures climb. And the cholera agent, Vibrio cholerae, replicates better at higher temperatures.”

Unlike the zombie microbes lurking in the permafrost, modern spreading diseases are more of a known quantity, and there are proved ways to curb them: mapping trends, eliminating mosquito-breeding sites and spraying insecticides. Of course, dramatically lowering fossil-fuel emissions to combat climate change could tackle both threats—the resurgence of ancient and deadly pathogens and the widening ranges of infectious diseases—in one shot.

Earth wins time as land and seas absorb more carbon


Where does all the carbon go? Only half stays in the atmosphere Image: Ra Boe via Wikimedia Commons

Where does all the carbon go? Only half stays in the atmosphere
 Image: Ra Boe via Wikimedia Commons

Kind of good news but by no means should we slow efforts in the direction of a carbon-free Earth.
Self-protection of the planet (oceans, forests etc) has reached its limits and further violation could destroy Earth as well as mankind. That’s scientific and common knowledge as you, probably, can read here among other sources.

 

Climate change has intensified more slowly than scientists had expected because the continents and oceans are absorbing more atmospheric carbon dioxide.

LONDON, 17 May, 2015 − Half of all the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels remain in the atmosphere. The good news is that only half remain in the atmosphere, while the rest have been taken up by the living world and then absorbed into the land, and the ocean. That is, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen, so also has the planet’s capacity to soak up atmospheric carbon.

The implication is that what engineers call “positive feedback” – in which global warming triggers the release of yet more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to accelerate yet further warming – doesn’t seem to be at work yet.

The implication, too, is that the world’s governments still have time to launch determined programmes to sharply reduce fossil fuel use, and switch to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources before climate change disrupts the planet’s food security and exacts what could be a devastating toll on the biosphere.

But most climate scientists know all this anyway: the real significance of a new study in the journal Biogeosciences is that US and British scientists have narrowed some of the uncertainties in what climate scientists like to call the carbon budget: how much gets into the atmosphere, where it goes, and how long it stays.

That is because although the big picture – that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are beginning to rise steeply – has been confirmed repeatedly by systematic measurements since 1956, the potential margin of error has been considerable.

“This increased uptake by land and ocean is not only surprising; it’s good news”

“There is no question that land and oceans have, for at least the last five and half decades, been taking up about half of the carbon emitted each year. The outstanding question is, Why?” said Richard Houghton of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, one of the authors.

“Most of the processes responsible for that uptake would be expected to slow down as the Earth warms, but we haven’t seen it yet. Since the emissions today are three times higher than they were in the 1960s, this increased uptake by land and ocean is not only surprising; it’s good news.

“Without it, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would be twice what it is, and climate change would be much farther along. But there’s no guarantee that it will continue.”

The carbon budget is an integral part of the climate puzzle: all simulations of how climate will change with increasing emissions from fossil fuels depend on an understanding of how much carbon dioxide concentrates in the atmosphere and what happens to it after that.

In the last few months researchers have reported a dramatic uptake of atmospheric carbon by new forests and the growth of woodland on the world’s savannahs and pinpointed the fjords – those steep, still stretches of sea in mountainous coastlines in the high latitudes – as prime “sinks” for atmospheric carbon.

Uncertainties narrowed

At the same time others have once again confirmed fears that thawing permafrost could release vast quantities of carbon stored for millennia is semi-decayed and now frozen vegetation.

But these have been studies of small pieces of the big puzzle. What the Biogeosciences authors did was to refine two global uncertainties. One is how much fossil fuel is burned each year and the other is how much is stacking up in the atmosphere.

Both sound simple, but the first question is complicated by differences in the ways nations maintain their own energy inventories, and the way they report the details, and the second depends on how the use of land has changed, how the oceans are responding to higher levels of acidification and how carbon dioxide levels vary according to region, and to season.

With greater certainty in the answers to the second question – which began with one single set of measurements at the top of a mountain in Hawaii now replicated worldwide – researchers found they could make more sense of the first question, and narrow the uncertainties to a point where they could write that they were “93% confident that terrestrial C uptake has increased and 97% confident that ocean C uptake has increased in the last five decades.

“Thus it is clear that arguably one of the most vital ecosystem services currently provided by the biosphere is the continued removal of approximately half of atmospheric CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.” − Climate News Network»

The Arctic is “unraveling” due to climate change, and the consequences will be global


Calved icebergs from Greenland's Twin Glaciers are seen floating on the water on July 30,2013 in Quaqortoq, Greenland (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Calved icebergs from Greenland’s Twin Glaciers are seen floating on the water on July 30,2013 in Quaqortoq, Greenland (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Source: The Washington Post

April 16 2015

We often hear that climate change is radically reshaping the Arctic, a place many of us have never visited. As a result, it can be pretty hard to feel directly affected by what’s happening up in a distant land of polar bears, ice floes and something odd called permafrost.

A new booklet from the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council wants to change that. Synthesizing much past academy work on the Arctic region, the booklet– being released just before the United States assumes the chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council later this month — blazons this message: “What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic.”

Here are four potential ways, drawing both upon the new report and much of our prior reporting here, that changes in the Arctic will reverberate well beyond it and, in some cases, have planet wide consequences:

1. Changing Your Weather.

The National Research Council booklet also notes that warming oceans could have a substantial effect on the fishing industry, which prowls the Arctic and sub-Arctic for a crucial part of its catch. “About half of the U.S. fish catch comes from subarctic waters,” notes the report.

Fishermen and fishing boats may have new routes open to them due to a less icy Arctic, the report acknowledges. But at the same time, the composition and distribution of species could change with warming waters:

Atlantic cod, for example, have been displacing the endemic polar cod in the waters surrounding the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard. In addition, rising temperatures and an influx of fresh water from melting ice can cause rippling effects through the marine food chain. In the North Atlantic, for example, scientists project that ocean warming will cause shifts in the spawning and feeding grounds of several economically-important fish populations, including Arctic cod, herring, and capelin.

Granted, we shouldn’t be alarmist about this. As we’ve previously reported, contrary to a number of press accounts, global warming is not going to take away your fish and chips.

3. Raising Sea Levels.

(Reuters/Handout/NASA)

(Reuters/Handout/NASA)

The melting of ice on land in the Arctic — whether from glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic, or the Greenland ice sheet — contributes to sea level rise that does not stay in the Arctic, but rather, spreads around the world. Greenland is of course the biggest potential contributor, since if it were to melt entirely, it would cause 20 feet of sea level rise.

And there’s also a less known Arctic contributor to sea level changes: the way polar melting could weaken the great overturning circulation of the oceans.

There is suggestive evidence that the melting of Greenland is already contributing to a freshening of the waters of the north Atlantic. This, in turn, may be slowing down the so-called Atlantic meridional overturning circulation — which carries a tremendous amount of warm water northward in the Atlantic.

[Global warming is now slowing down the circulation of the oceans — with potentially dire consequences]

If the circulation weakens, then it affects sea level on either side of it. That’s for two reasons (explained in more depth here): Warmer waters lie to the right or east of the Gulf Stream, and warm water expands and takes up more area — leaving sea level lower on the U.S. coast side of the circulation. A weakening would thus raise our sea level.

There’s also the fact that in the northern hemisphere, “sea surface slope perpendicular to any current flow, like the Gulf Stream, has a higher sea level on its right hand side, and the lower sea level on the left hand slide,” according to Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. So again, a weaker Gulf Stream evens that out, and you’d see sea level rise on the U.S. coast.

4. Worsening Global Warming Itself.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Finally, changes in the Arctic are expected to amplify global warming itself. The principal way this could happen is through the thawing of frozen ground or permafrost, which covers much of the Arctic, and which contains huge stores of frozen carbon.

[The Arctic climate threat that nobody’s even talking about yet]

Recent scientific analysis has affirmed that Arctic permafrost is packed with carbon — some 1,330 and 1,580 gigatons worth, and that may be a low end estimate — and that over the course of the century, a substantial fraction will get released to the atmosphere. It would probably happen slowly and steadily, but it could amount to a significant contribution to overall global warming.

Why will this occur? As the National Research Council explains:

Plants are essentially made of carbon. When a plant dies in a temperate area, it decomposes, releasing some of its carbon into the air and some into the soil. But when a plant dies in a place too cold for decomposition, it simply stays put, locking its carbon in place.

Until permafrost thaws, anyway. If enough of it does so, the volume of carbon emissions could be enough to set back worldwide efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuel burning by adding an entire new source of greenhouse gases beyond the usual suspects, like fossil fuels and deforestation.

Last month, when we learned that Arctic sea ice had reached a new record low for its winter maximum ice extent, former deputy assistant secretary of state Rafe Pomerance said: “The Arctic is unraveling, warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

It’s a powerful quotation, and as the United States takes chairmanship of the Arctic Council on April 24, you shouldn’t assume that “unraveling” is irrelevant to you. We’re all invested in the Arctic, because we’re all invested in the planet.

The Shoking Climate Threat Nobody’s Even Talking About


Arctic baffin_bay_jpg_size_xxlarge_promo

There is a crucial factor to have in mind while reading this and any other information about recent and  forthcoming disasters:
With regard to Arctic, there are several countries (USA, Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark) eager, impatient and looking forward to the melting of the arctic ice in order to exploit the oil and gas -no matter what science, official reports, common knowledge and public opinion say.
They have already raised claims.
If you are interested, I included a few links.

By Chris Mooney, Washington Post, 06 April 15

When we think about the Arctic in a warming world, we tend to think about sharp declines in sea ice and — that powerful symbol — the polar bear. But that’s far from the only problem that a melting Arctic brings.

In the past decade, scientists have been training more attention on another deeply troubling consequence. Rapid Arctic warming is expected to lead to the thawing of a great deal of frozen soil or permafrost, which, as it thaws, will begin to emit carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. And if this occurs in the amounts that some scientists are predicting, it could significantly undermine efforts to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.

Permafrost is simply defined as ground that stays frozen all year round. There’s a lot of it – it covers 24 percent of the surface of the northern hemisphere land masses, according to the International Permafrost Association. But more and more of it is thawing as the Arctic warms, and these frozen soils contain a vast amount of organic material — largely dead plant life — in a kind of suspended animation.

“It’s built up over thousand and thousands of years,” says Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It’s all stored away in a freezer, and as we’re warming the Earth, and warming the Arctic, it’s starting to thaw.”

As permafrost thaws, microbes start to chow down on the organic material that it contains, and as that material decomposes, it emits either carbon dioxide or methane. Experts think most of the release will take the form of carbon dioxide — the chief greenhouse gas driving global warming — but even a small fraction released as methane can have major consequences. Although it doesn’t last nearly as long as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, methane has a short-term warming effect that is many times more powerful.

Among the potential mega-problems brought on by climate change, including melting ice caps to the slowdown of the ocean conveyor system, permafrost emissions are unique. For it’s not merely about sea level rise or weather changes — it’s about amplifying the root problem behind it all, atmospheric carbon levels.

The emission of carbon from thawing permafrost is what scientists call a “positive feedback.” More global warming could cause more thawing of Arctic permafrost, leading to more emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more warming and more thawing of Arctic permafrost — this does not end in a good place.

Moreover, in a year in which the world will train its attention on Paris and the hope for a new global climate agreement, permafrost emissions could potentially undermine global climate policies. Even as the world starts to cut back on emissions, the planet itself might start replacing our emissions cuts with brand new carbon outputs.

All of this, and the Arctic permafrost problem hasn’t received much attention — yet. “The concept is actually relatively new,” says Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It was first proposed in 2005. And the first estimates came out in 2011.” Indeed, the problem is so new that it has not yet made its way into major climate projections, Schaefer says.

“None of the climate projections in the last IPCC report account for permafrost,” says Schaefer. “So all of them underestimate, or are biased low.”

To understand why northern soils contain so much carbon it helps to understand why southern or tropical soils don’t. It all comes down to temperature, and how that affects how quickly microorganisms break down dead organic material (plant and animal life), causing it to release its carbon back into the atmosphere.

In temperate latitudes, it’s simple: Plants grow and pull carbon dioxide from the air — then they die, decompose and emit it back again. “In warmer temperatures, microbial activity will go on over all of the year,” says Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “So even if productivity in warmer climates [is] larger, there’s not much sequestration of carbon in the soil.”

But in permafrost regions, it’s very different. Plants grow much more slowly, and there are fewer of them — but their decomposition is also much slower, explains Romanovsky. So a large amount of organic material gets stored in the frozen ground. And this has been happening, in some cases, over tens of thousands of years since the last ice age, leading to a truly vast carbon store that is stuck in place — or, at least, it used to be.

“As long as the carbon stays frozen in permafrost, it’s stable,” says Schaefer. “It’s kind of like broccoli in your freezer. But if you take that out, it eventually thaws out and goes bad.”

The problem, in this case, is the size of the freezer. Just consider some basic numbers. According to a 2013 report from the National Academy of Sciences, northern permafrost contains 1,700 to 1,850 gigatons of carbon — a gigaton is a billion metric tons — which is more than double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere (730 gigatons, says the NAS). And over 1,000 of those gigatons are thought to be stored in the top three meters of permafrost soil.

Nobody’s saying all of that is going to come out — certainly not immediately, and maybe not ever. However, as the Arctic continues to warm over the course of the century, emissions from permafrost could ramp up, and they could eventually reach a scale that could begin to offset climate gains. “It’s certainly not much of a stretch of the imagination to think that over the coming decades, we could lose a couple of gigatons per year from thawing permafrost,” says Holmes.

So far, permafrost emissions, if any, are pretty small. But by 2100, the “mean” estimate for total emissions from permafrost right now is 120 gigatons, says Schaefer. That’s no small matter, considering that according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences (see above), the world can only emit about 1000 total gigatons of carbon if we want to have a good chance of limiting the temperature rise to less 2 degrees Celsius of warming since 1860-1880.

According to the IPCC, the world had already emitted 515 gigatons by 2011, leaving a pretty tight remaining carbon “budget.” Permafrost emissions, if they’re big enough, could lead to busting the budget a lot quicker.

The world has been focused on some Arctic emissions problems lately that sound a lot like the thawing permafrost emissions problem, but should probably be distinguished from it. For instance, there is the concern about weird craters that have been found in northern Siberia, and the idea that these might be the result of methane explosions from permafrost.

While there’s still debate over how the craters were formed, though, it’s not clear that we’re talking about the same phenomenon. One reason? The craters are very far to the north in the area around the Yamal Peninsula, and that’s not where the thawing permafrost emissions problem is expected to first emerge. Rather, it should be the opposite — at the southern rim of where permafrost is found.

“The further south you go, the warmer it is, so the more vulnerable the permafrost is to thawing,” says Schaefer. “So all the emissions will be dominated by the southern margins, southern Alaska, Hudson Bay.”

Nonetheless, the craters have gotten vastly more media attention — because they’re mysterious, and because they’re thought to reflect dramatic methane explosions. But ultimately, the steady, long-term problem of carbon loss from permafrost may be scarier.

Later this month — on April 24 — the United States takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a group of eight nations with Arctic territories that helps to coordinate policy for the region. The State Department has specifically indicated that one of the focuses of the two-year chairmanship will be the issue of climate change. So, will permafrost emissions enter into policy considerations?

“This is a dangerous feedback loop as Arctic warming drives permafrost thaw, and the permafrost releases more GHGs into the atmosphere, accelerating change,” said a State Department official. “However, many questions remain about the processes by and time scales over which such emissions could be released into the atmosphere.”

The official said that through the Arctic Council, the United States will emphasize better monitoring and observation systems to detect emissions from permafrost. But the officials also underscored the importance of “an ambitious international climate agreement in Paris – this is where we need action to slow climate change.”

The concern is whether such an agreement will arrive soon enough to stop or at least blunt the permafrost problem. It’s “a true climatic tipping point, because it’s completely irreversible,” says Schaefer. “Once you thaw the permafrost, there’s no way to refreeze it.”

Source: Reader Supported News

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