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The Killing Joke: the dangers of laughing gas

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Polar
The Killing Joke: the dangers of laughing gas Yuangeng Zhang
19 Aug
2017
Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This month, Marco Magrini looks at the melting permafrost

There is nothing laughable about finding laughing gas below frozen ground. New research published in the journal PNAS has revealed that, as an effect of a climate-change induced thawing, it’s not only carbon dioxide and methane that is seeping out of the planet’s northernmost expanses, but nitrous oxide as well. Being 300 times more potent a greenhouse-gas than CO2, this is yet more horrible news for the environment.

Permafrost has been reigning undisturbed since the last ice age. As the name implies, it is a permanently frozen soil blanketing 19 million square kilometres all around the Arctic Circle. It covers 24 per cent of the Northern Hemisphere territories belonging to Russia, Canada and Alaska. As atmospheric temperatures increase, its own integrity is in jeopardy.

Human settlements in the north, mostly in Russia, are already experiencing cracking and collapsing structures as the frozen soil they are built upon thaws. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, humanity’s most precious repository of crop biodiversity, has faced an unexpected nightmare. Built in the remote Norwegian archipelago to protect 400,000 seed samples against ‘the challenge of natural or man-made disasters’, in May the vault’s entrance flooded with melting water.

In the Yamal Peninsula, a 12-year-old Siberian boy died after being infected by anthrax. Nearly a century before, a reindeer had been trapped under the permafrost together with the bacteria that killed it. There they stayed until a heatwave in the summer of 2016, when the anthrax spores were revived. Permafrost can hibernate viruses and bacteria for a long time, maybe as long as a million years.

Still, the scariest upshot of future permafrost thawing resides in the huge amount of greenhouse gases it freezes over. Various estimates put the amount as being up to 70,000 million tonnes of methane, which has the equivalent warming potential of several decades of the world’s current greenhouse-gas emissions. Add the stored carbon dioxide, plus nitrous oxide, and this is where things could go very bad indeed.

Due to the collateral effects of human activities, the frozen land that was the epitome of stability is rapidly changing. Let’s perhaps call it ‘impermafrost’. And let’s do everything possible to avoid its perilous demise.

This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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