Every year, Alaska receives well over two million tourists. One of the most popular destinations is the city of Fairbanks, but few know that a laboratory sits just outside the city. There, scientists have discovered a time bomb– both biological and environmental– resting beneath the earth. See what they discovered, and how dangerous it might be.
A Hidden Time Bomb Outside Fairbanks, Alaska
If you drive north of Fairbanks, Alaska–the nation’s second-largest city–you’ll find a red shack embedded in a hillside. Its metal door has a heavy latch, like a walk-in freezer.
When NPR reporter Michaeleen Doucleff entered the shack for a tour, scientists warned her that it contained a “ticking time bomb.” But what does that mean?
The Shack Descends Into A Hidden Laboratory
That red shack is not a freezer. It is a tunnel 40 feet below the ground, called the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). Since the 1960s, scientists have studied the Alaskan terrain there.
CRREL labs exist across the U.S., studying everything from water conservation to military engineering. But in Alaska, scientists made a disturbing discovery.
There, Scientists Study Permafrost
At the CRREL in Alaska, scientists were studying permafrost. Permafrost is any ground that remains frozen (under 32°F) for at least two years.
Although permafrost is usually underground, it does not have to be solid. It has several layers, even some with moist soil. Permafrost even occurs underneath lakes and oceans.
Permafrost Is Not Just In Alaska
Around 15% of the Northern Hemisphere contains permafrost, including Canada, Russia, Greenland. It makes the ground waterproof, cools the Earth, and provides a habitat for animals and plants.
According to Merritt Turetsky, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, permafrost is “the glue that holds northern ecosystems together.”
Scientists Suspect That There Might Be Viruses In There
Since 85% of Alaska is permafrost, scientists went there to study it. But the ice doesn’t just contain soil; it also has fossils. In the CRREL tunnel, a mammoth leg jutted out of the wall and skulls were buried in the floors.
But scientists believed that some types of organisms might still be alive: specifically, bacteria and viruses.
Across The World, Permafrost Has Been Melting
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Alaska’s base temperature has risen by one degree since 2010. This might not sound like much, but it’s enough to melt some permafrost.
Melting permafrost risks the safety of Alaska’s habitat and infrastructures. Scientists also worry that it might release the bacteria– sending new viruses into the world.
Alaskan Scientists Decided To Test It
To test this, Thomas Douglas, a geochemist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gathered chunks of permafrost. He and his team drilled into the ice to gather chunks that were five inches long 2.5 inches wide–about the size of a soda can.
After gathering ice from the tunnel walls, scientists took it into a lab and waited for it to melt at room temperature.
In The Ice, They Discovered Signs Of Life
After a few days of melting, scientists saw some growth. It was slow at first, but then it skyrocketed exponentially. It was living bacteria!
“This is material that stayed frozen for 25,000 years,” Douglas said. “And given the right environmental conditions, it came back alive again vigorously.” Multiple types of microbes survived in the ice.
Viruses And Bacteria Can Survive For Thousands Of Years
Jean-Michel Claverie, an evolutionary biologist at France’s Aix-Marseille University, was not surprised that bacteria and viruses survived for tens of thousands of years.
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” he told the BBC. And yes, some of these viruses can infect humans.
What Kind Of Viruses Was In The Ice?
Permafrost contains a long list of ancient viruses. Some are not harmful to humans, such as Chloroflexi, which degrades carbon. But others are.
Orthopoxvirus, better known as smallpox, was also trapped in the ice. This disease causes skin lesions and scarring all over the body. But that’s still not the worst finding.
But The Worst Was Anthrax
The most worrying bacterium found was Bacillus anthracis. This can cause Anthrax, a disease that spreads so rapidly that militaries use it for biological warfare.
Of course, these findings were limited to a laboratory environment, not a city. But what if we told you that permafrost disease outbreaks have happened before?
Some Of These Diseases Haven’t Been Seen For Centuries
Microbes that are thousands of years old carry diseases that are also old. The Spanish influenza, which became an epidemic in 1918, resurrected from the permafrost. These diseases can travel through the earth, water, and air.
“They were sequestered there for many, many years,” said permafrost expert Vladimir Romanovsky. “Tens of years, even thousands and tens of thousands of years.”
Permafrost Disease Outbreaks Have Already Happened
In 2016, Russia’s melting permafrost resulted in an anthrax outbreak. The disease killed one boy and 2,000 reindeer before it was contained.
Microbiologist Birgitta Evengard claimed that climate change is rising in the Arctic three times faster than the rest of the world. Scientists worry that this will unleash a long list of diseases.
Some Believe That The Diseases Won’t Be That Harmful
Infectious disease specialist David Morens argued that the chance of getting sick from these diseases is small. Although many are frozen in permafrost, most still exist across the globe.
“Anthrax is sitting in the grass in farms in Texas,” Morens explained. “It’s everywhere. And so the fact that some might be in the permafrost doesn’t really add to whatever the risk is.”
Fortunately, Some Diseases Might Not Make It To The Surface
Although the viruses and bacteria survived in a lab, they might not survive in the wild. Morens claimed that both anthrax and the Spanish flu are incredibly fragile.
When Morens conducted a similar experiment, the only thing that emerged from the permafrost was broken RNA. “Nucleic acid,” he clarified. “There was nothing infectious. A ton of it swallowed would have been harmless.”
Others Say That The Viruses Quickly Become Infectious
Although some researchers are not concerned about the ancient viruses, others are. Certain viruses, including Anthrax and Clostridium botulinum that causes botulism, can withstand changing temperatures.
In 2014, a study from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that viruses quickly become infectious after they revive. While some will die off, others might become a threat.
Some Viruses Are Resistant To Antibiotics
To make matters worse, some ancient microbes are resistant to antibiotics. In 2016, scientists tested ancient Paenibacillus bacteria from a cave. The bacteria did not react to 70% of antibiotics, including ones that are considered a “last resort.”
Scientists believe that the viruses and bacteria naturally became antibiotic-resistant, as they have been around for thousands to millions of years.
Permafrost Disease Are In Lakes, Too
Bacteria-filled ice isn’t only in the ground. In 2005, NASA scientists melted bacteria-filled ice from an Alaskan lake. The microbes, Carnobacterium pleistocenium, were successfully revived after 32,000 years.
This dates back to the Pleistocene period when mammoths walked the Earth. Even if ice melts in a lake, ancient viruses and bacteria will be resurrected.
Not Only That, But Melting Permafrost Might Worsen The Climate
For decades, permafrost had been considered a “carbon sink.” This means that permafrost soaks up and traps carbon dioxide, which keeps the Earth’s climate stable.
But Dr. Douglas’s experiment in Alaska raised another risk. He believed that permafrost might end up releasing more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, further worsening climate change.
Permafrost Is Filled With Carbon
Remember the fossils trapped in the permafrost? Some are millions of years old. Douglas claimed that some thawed grass in the tunnel was 25,000 years old.
Like all lifeforms, fossils are made with carbon. As permafrost melts, all of that carbon releases into the air. But the bacteria makes it ten times worse.
Bacteria Produce More Carbon Dioxide
When bacteria hawed, they were hungry. They consume carbon in the permafrost and convert it to methane and carbon dioxide–two gases that heat up the planet.
“The permafrost contains twice as much carbon as is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere,” Douglas warned. “That’s 1,600 billion metric tons.” This could significantly impact climate change.
Scientists Are Worried About The Impact On Earth
Scientists are worried about what might happen when permafrost melts across the world. According to Douglas, there is more carbon in permafrost than humans have created since the Industrial Revolution.
Melting permafrost will radically change ecosystems–not just in the Arctic, but across the world. However, scientists do not know how significant this will become.
Alaska No Longer Helps The Environment
Because of Alaska’s protected wilderness, it has been viewed as a blessing for climate change. But as the permafrost melts, it might become a danger.
“We have evidence that Alaska has changed from being a net absorber of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to a net exporter,” reported chemist Charles Miller, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Climate Change Might Become A Dangerous Feedback Loop
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Alaska’s net temperature has risen by four degrees since the 1980s with no signs of stopping. As permafrost melts, it could create a feedback loop.
Melted permafrost will release carbon dioxide, which will warm the atmosphere, which will melt more permafrost and release more carbon dioxide.
Scientists Don’t Know How Quickly This Will Happen
Scientists are still not sure how quickly permafrost will melt, or what impact it will have. For instance, some of the carbon released will be swept away by the ocean.
And as ice melts, more plants will grow. These plants will re-absorb the carbon dioxide from the permafrost. Perhaps it will not be so disastrous.
Alaskan Residents Are Already Suffering The Consequences
Even though melted permafrost has yet to release diseases, it is already impacting the lives of Alaskan residents. Although permafrost makes it difficult to erect buildings and cities, humans have learned to work around it.
Those who live in the Arctic now rely on permafrost to keep their cities running. As the frost melts, buildings topple.
Melting Permafrost Detroys Infrastructure
When permafrost melted, Alaskan roads, buildings, and cemeteries have caved in. And it’s happening too quickly for scientists to react in time.
“I’ve heard of dozens of houses falling in, and a few churches,” said permafrost researcher Darcy Peter. “There are multiple graveyards that are falling in, and there’s nothing that anybody can do.”
Rural Communities Will Be Threatened First
Although every Alaskan resident will be impacted by the rising temperatures, rural communities will change the most. Thirty-five of the 200 rural communities live in a high-threat area for melting permafrost.
Scientists are pouring over local maps and weather predications to determine how quickly the permafrost will thaw. But this research takes time.
The Costs Of Melting Permafrost Are High
Since roads and buildings are already collapsing, rising temperatures are literally costing money. In 2017, a study determined that climate change will cost Alaska at least $5.5 billion by the end of the century.
Indigenous and Native communities, who are the most impacted, have applied for monetary assistance and received little help. Alaska does not yet have enough funds to remedy the situation.
Scientists Are Rushing For A Solution… But It Takes A Long Time
Scientists have been hurrying to uncover a solution to the permafrost problem, but it’s slow-going. “The data that we have are extraordinarily time-consuming,” said Merritt Turetsky, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Scientists have to drill into tunnels, gather permafrost, melt it, and test it. And they have to repeat that process millions of times in different locations.