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Permafrost: Going, Going…?

I'm melting!

I don’t think about Earth’s permafrost much because I live nowhere near it.

I know it’s melting. A fact stored in the back of my mind.

But every so often, I see or read something that brings the reality to the fore like a slap across the face.

It’s melting. And it’s melting fast.

Most recently, I read an article about an intact woolly rhino that emerged from permafrost that had melted. It had died anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. In that same article was a photo of a baby woolly. So cute, in all its strawberry blond woolliness.

Frozen babies are sooo cute!

Other animal bodies have been found. The finds afford mammologists the opportunity to study the not-so-ancient animals depicted in cave paintings, those disappeared after the last Ice Age. Mammoths. Mastodons. Sabre-toothed tigers. Wolf pups. Botanists study plants that haven’t been seen on Earth in those same thousands of years by growing them from seeds, their viability miraculously preserved in the frozen ground.

Bully for them.

No, really. I love reading about their finds. Examining the pictures of mummified animals. They look so different, yet so familiar at the same time. This is what life looked like way back when. Not much different from looking back on the modern world from 80 or 90 years ago. It’s fascinating.

But.

Other scientists involved in these finds are virologists and microbiologists. Giant viruses, so large they can be seen under a microscope, have sprung back to life after thawing. Granted, these particular viruses aren’t dangerous to humans. And some virologists say it’s been so long, the insects such that transmitted these viruses aren’t around, either. I’ll buy that — up to a point.

First, surely not all the various types of viruses lurking in the permafrost have been found. Who’s to say they aren’t pathogens dangerous to humans? We know from the pandemic how quickly viruses can mutate. Who’s to say that these viruses can’t adapt to infect a modern insect host, which then passes the virus to us? After all these thousands of years, what immunity would we have to protect us?

Feeling a little buggy, yet?

And the bacteria. Over 100 types have been found to be antibiotic resistant. Since antibiotics were used on these critters, I assume they’re pathogens. As the permafrost thaws, what if they mix with the meltwater and create new antibiotic resistant strains? What happens then? We already have plenty of bacteria that are antibiotic resistant — the so-called superbugs. We sure as hell don’t need more.

Don’t forget the anthrax outbreak a few years ago in Siberia. A 12-year-old kid died. The cause? A caribou, dead for a century. The permafrost melted, the carcass saw the light of day, and the bacteria said, “hey, y’all! I’m ready to paahty!”

If that isn’t enough of a doomsday scenario, think about all the carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the permafrost. Methane’s an even worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If enough methane is released, no one will have to worry about cow farts anymore. Sure, it’s being released by biomass, but it’s also being released from limestone rocks. Rocks. Nobody saw that coming.

Then there are the pollutants locked up the in permafrost. Like DDT. Remember that shit? A pesticide to end all pesticides. Eradicated those pesky bugs on contact! But then we found out it ain’t great for humans. Found out it’s a “probable” carcinogen. So, the gummint banned it in 1972. DDT has a half-life of 15 years. All’s well, right? No. The damage was done, and we’re still seeing its effects. A long term study of the children and grandchildren of women exposed to DDT in the 1960s yielded interesting results. A woman’s daughter had a much higher risk of breast cancer. Her son had a higher risk of testicular cancer. And, like Grandma, her granddaughter has a higher risk of breast cancer, too. A “probable” carcinogen. Yeah.

The good, the bad, and the seriously ugly.

So, just below my fascination and excitement about all these mammalian permafrost finds lies a sea of uneasiness. It’s not so much about me because I’ll most likely be dead before all the shit really hits the fan. I fear for the young people, especially babies. Reminds me of the 1970s, when many couples opted for childlessness because they didn’t want to bring a new life into the world, given all its then-current ills. Given the world’s current ills, I wonder if they feel vindicated?

This has been a real Debbie Downer of a post, hasn’t it?

I’m gonna have nightmares tonight, fer sure.

 

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