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The poisons released by melting Arctic ice

In 2012, Sue Natali arrived in Duvanny Yar, Siberia, for the first time. Then a postdoctoral research fellow studying the effects of thawing permafrost due to climate change, she had seen photos of this site many times. Rapid thawing at Duvanny Yar had caused a massive ground collapse – a “mega slump” – like a giant sinkhole in the middle of the Siberian tundra. But nothing had prepared her for seeing it in person.

2012年,纳塔利(Sue Natali)首次抵达位于西伯利亚的杜瓦尼亚尔(Duvanny Yar)。那时,她还是一名博士后研究员,研究对象是气候变化导致的永久冻土融化的影响。在那之前,她多次看到这个地方的照片。在杜瓦尼亚尔,永冻层融化得很快,导致西伯利亚永久冻土带中央出现了一片大面积地面塌陷——“大滑坡”,像一个巨坑一样。但她没想到自己会亲眼看到这一切。

“It was incredible, really incredible”, she recalls while speaking to me from The Woods Hole Research Center, Massachusetts, where she is an associate scientist. “I still get chills when I think about it… I just couldn’t believe the magnitude: collapsing cliffs the size of multi-storey buildings … and as you walk along you see what look like logs poking out the permafrost. But they aren’t logs, they are the bones of mammoths and other Pleistocene animals.”

“不可思议,真的不可思议,”身在马萨诸塞州伍兹霍尔研究中心(Woods Hole Research Center)的她在接受我的采访时回忆说。她现在是该中心的副研究员。“我到现在一想到它还打颤……根本无法相信那种规模:多层建筑大小的悬崖坍塌……一边走一边能看到像木头一样的东西露出永冻层。但它们不是木头,是猛犸象和其他更新世(Pleistocene)动物的骨头。”

What Natali describes is the visible, dramatic effects of a rapidly warming Arctic. The permafrost – up until now, permanently frozen land and soil – is thawing out, and revealing its hidden secrets. Alongside Pleistocene fossils are massive carbon and methane emissions, toxic mercury, and ancient diseases.


The organic-rich permafrost holds an estimated 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon. “That’s about twice as much carbon in the atmosphere, and three times as much carbon than that stored in all the world’s forests”, says Natali. She explains that between 30% and 70% of the permafrost may melt before 2100, depending on how effectively we respond to climate change. “The 70% is business as usual, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, and 30% is if we vastly reduce our fossil fuel emissions… Of the 30-70% that thaws, the carbon locked up in organic matter will begin to be broken down by microbes, they use it as fuel or energy, and they release it as CO2 or methane.”


Around 10% of the carbon that does defrost will probably be released as CO2, amounting to 130-150 billion tonnes. That is equivalent to the current rate of total US emissions, every year until 2100. Melting permafrost effectively introduces a new country at number two on the highest emitters list, and one that isn’t accounted for in current IPCC models. “People talk about a carbon bomb,” says Natali. “In geological timescales this is not a slow release. It is a pool of carbon that is locked away and is not accounted for in the carbon budget to keep rises below two degrees (Celsius).”


The Northern Hemisphere winter of 2018/2019 was dominated by headlines of the “polar vortex”, as temperatures plummeted unusually far south into North America. In South Bend, Indiana, it reached -29C in January 2019, almost twice as low as the city’s previous record set in 1936. What such stories masked, however, was that the opposite was happening in the far North, beyond the Arctic circle. January 2019 also saw Arctic sea ice average just 13.56 million square kilometres (5.24 million square miles), some 860,000 square kilometres (332,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average, and only slightly above the record low reached in January 2018.


In November, when temperatures should have been -25C, a temperature of 1.2C above freezing was recorded at the North Pole. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world (in part due to the loss of solar reflectivity).


“We are seeing a big increase in the thaw of permafrost”, confirms Emily Osborne, program manager for the Arctic Research Program, NOAA, and editor of the Arctic Report Card, an annual peer-reviewed environmental study of the Arctic. As a direct result of rising air temperatures, she says, the permafrost is thawing and “the landscape is physically crumbling as a result… things are changing so fast, and in ways that researchers hadn’t even anticipated.”<纽约时报中英文网 http://www.qqenglish.com/>

“我们看到,永冻层融化速度大大加快,”美国国家海洋和大气管理局北极研究项目(Arctic Research Program,NOAA)的项目经理、北极环境研究同行评议年刊《北极报告》(Arctic Report Card)的编辑奥斯本(Emily Osborne)证实。她说,气温不断上升的直接后果是永久冻土融化,“结果地面坍塌……情况变化非常快,而且是以连研究人员都没预料到的方式。”

The headline of the 2017 Arctic Report Card pulled no punches: “Arctic shows no sign of returning to a reliably frozen region”. One paper co-authored by Hanne Christiansen, professor and vice dean of education at University Centre Svalbard, Norway, studied permafrost temperatures at a depth of 20 metres (that's 65ft, far enough down not to be affected by short-term seasonal changes) and found temperatures had risen by up to 0.7C since 2000. Christiansen, who is also president of the International Permafrost Association, tells me, “temperatures are increasing inside the permafrost at relatively high speed… then, of course, what was permanently frozen before can become released.” In 2016, the autumn temperatures in Svalbard remained above zero throughout November, “the first time this has happened in the records that we have, going back to 1898”, says Christiansen. “Then large amounts of rain came – the precipitation here is typically snow… we had mudslides crossing roads for 100s of metres… we had to evacuate some parts of the population.”

2017年的《北极报告》的标题毫不留情——《北极没有表现出回归稳定冻结状态的迹象》。挪威斯瓦尔巴大学(University Centre Svalbard)教育学院教授兼副院长克里斯蒂安森(Hanne Christiansen)与人合著的一篇论文研究了20米(即65英尺,深度足以不受短期季节变化的影响)深处的永久冻土温度,发现自2000年以来那里的温度上升了0.7摄氏度。同时也是国际永久冻土协会(International Permafrost Association)主席的克里斯蒂安森告诉我,“永冻层内部的温度正在以相对较快的速度上升……那么,之前处于永久冻结状态的东西自然可能会被释放出来。”2016年,斯瓦尔巴群岛(Svalbard)的秋季气温在整个11月都保持在零度以上,“这是自我们1898年开始记录以来的第一次,”克里斯蒂安森说。“然后是大量降雨——这里的降水通常是雪……泥石流冲毁了几百米道路……我们不得不疏散部分民众。”

The rapid change in North American permafrost is equally alarming. “In some places in the Alaskan Arctic, you fly over a swiss cheese of land and lakes formed by ground collapse,” says Natali, whose fieldwork has moved from Siberia to Alaska. “Water that was close to the surface now becomes a pond.” Many of these ponds are bubbling with methane, as microbes suddenly find themselves with a feast of ancient organic matter to munch on, releasing methane as a by-product. “We often walk across the lakes because it’s so shallow and it’s like you’re in a hot tub in some places, there is so much bubbling,” says Natali.


But methane and CO2 are not the only things being released from the once frozen ground. In the summer of 2016, a group of nomadic reindeer herders began falling sick from a mysterious illness. Rumours began circling of the “Siberian plague”, last seen in the region in 1941. When a young boy and 2,500 reindeer died, the disease was identified: anthrax. Its origin was a defrosting reindeer carcass, a victim of an anthrax outbreak 75 years previously. The 2018 Arctic report card speculates that, “diseases like the Spanish flu, smallpox or the plague that have been wiped out might be frozen in the permafrost.” A French study in 2014 took a 30,000 year-old virus frozen within permafrost, and warmed it back up in the lab. It promptly came back to life, 300 centuries later.

但曾经的冻土释放出来的不仅仅是甲烷和二氧化碳。2016年夏天,一批驯鹿游牧民开始患上一种神秘的病。有关“西伯利亚瘟疫”的谣言开始流传。这种疾病最后一次出现在该地区是在1941年。在一个小男孩和2500头驯鹿死亡后,这种疾病被确认为炭疽热。病源是一具解冻的驯鹿尸体,这头驯鹿死于75年前的一场炭疽热疫情。2018年的《北极报告》推测,“像西班牙流感、天花或黑死病这样的已经被消灭的疾病可能被封冻在永久冻土中。”2014年,法国的一项研究提取了一种被封存在永冻层中长达3万年的病毒,并在实验室对其重新加热。尽管已经过了3万年,但该病毒仍迅速复活。<-->纽约时报中英文网 http://www.qqenglish.com<-->

Adding to this apocalyptic vision, in 2016 the Doomsday Vault – a sub-permafrost facility in Arctic Norway, which safeguards millions of crop seeds for perpetuity – was breached with meltwater. And listed amongst the membership of The Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost, is Swedish Nuclear Waste Management who presumably also rely on a permanently frozen permafrost.

2016年融水渗入“世界末日种子库”(Doomsday Vault)一事更是为这幅末日图景增添了新的内容。“世界末日种子库”位于挪威境内的北极地区,建在永冻层下面,保管着数以百万计的作物种子,以防止作物绝种。全球永久冻土地面网络(The Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost)的成员之一瑞典核废料管理公司(Swedish Nuclear Waste Management)大概也要靠永冻层永久冻结核废料。

Long-preserved human archaeology may also be emerging, but just as quickly lost. A frozen Palaeo-Eskimo site in Greenland, preserved for some 4,000 years, is at risk of being washed away. This is just one of an estimated 180,000 archaeological sites preserved in the permafrost, often with soft tissues and clothing that uniquely remain intact but would rot quickly if exposed. Adam Markham, of the Union of Concerned Scientists has said, “with rapid, human-caused climate change, many sites or the artefacts they contain, will be lost before they have been discovered.”

永久冻土融化后,可能会涌现一些保存已久的人类考古学遗址,但它们消失的速度也很快。格陵兰岛一处保存了大约4000年的冰冻古爱斯基摩人遗址正面临着被冲垮的危险。据估计,永冻层中保存着18万处考古遗址,这只是其中之一。在这些遗址中,往往能找到保存完好的软组织和衣物,但一旦暴露在空气中,它们就会迅速腐烂。忧思科学家联盟(Union of Concerned Scientists)的马卡姆(Adam Markham)说:“人类造成的气候变化发展迅速,在这种情况下,很多遗址和其中保存的物品会在被发现之前就消失了。”

More modern (and unwanted) human detritus will, however, not rot away: marine microplastics. Due to circular global marine currents, much plastic waste ends up in the Arctic, where it becomes frozen in sea ice or permafrost. A recent study of marine micro-particles demonstrated that concentrations were higher in the Arctic Basin than all other ocean basins in the world. Microplastic concentrations in the Greenland Sea doubled between 2004 and 2015. “Scientists are finding that those microplastics are accumulating across the entire ocean and being dumped into the Arctic”, explains Osborne. “This is something we didn’t [previously] realise was a problem. What scientists are trying to find out now is the composition of these microplastics, what sort of fish are feeding on these… and whether we are essentially eating microplastics through eating these fish.”

然而,人类留下的更现代 (和不需要)的碎屑却不会腐烂:海洋微塑料。由于全球洋流的循环,大量塑料垃圾最终到达北极,在那里被冻结在海冰或永久冻土中。最近对海洋微粒进行的一项研究表明,北极盆地的浓度高于全球其他所有海洋盆地。从2004年到2015年,格陵兰海的微塑料浓度翻了一番。“科学家发现,这些微塑料正在整个海洋积聚,最终涌入北极,”奥斯本解释说。“我们(以前)没意识到这个问题。科学家们现在试图弄清楚这些微塑料的成分、什么鱼以这些微塑料为食……以及我们本质上是否在通过食用这些鱼而吃进微塑料。”

Mercury is also entering the food chain, thanks to thawing permafrost. The Arctic is home to the most mercury on the planet. The US Geological Survey estimates there’s a total of 1,656,000 tonnes of mercury trapped in polar ice and permafrost: roughly twice the global amount in all other soils, oceans, and atmosphere. Natali explains that, “mercury often binds up with organic material in places where you have high organic matter content… organism’s bodies don’t remove it, so it bio-accumulates up the food web. Permafrost is almost the perfect storm – you have a lot of mercury in permafrost, it is released into wetland systems, those are the right environment for organisms to take them up, and then [it] heads up the food web. That’s a concern for wildlife, people, and the commercial fishing industry.”

因为永久冻土融化,汞也进入了食物链。北极是地球上汞最多的地方。美国地质调查局(US Geological Survey)估计,极地冰川和永久冻土中总共存储着165.6万吨汞:约是全球其他所有陆地、海洋和大气中汞含量的两倍。纳塔利解释说:“在有机物含量高的地方,汞通常与有机物结合在一起……有机体的身体不会将其去除,所以它会在食物链中进行生物积累。永冻层几乎就是那场完美的暴风雨——永冻层中有大量汞,它们被释放进湿地系统,湿地环境正适合有机体吸收汞,然后(它们)就进入了食物链。这对野生动植物、人类和商业捕鱼业来说都是一个问题。”

Are there some positives of a thawing Arctic? Could a greener Arctic start to see more trees and vegetation take root, sequestering more carbon and offering new grazing land for animals? Osborne agrees that “the Arctic is greening”. But she adds that studies of animal populations actually suggest that, “warmer temperatures also increase the prevalence of viruses and disease, so we’re seeing a lot more caribou and reindeer becoming more sickly as a result of this warming climate… it is just not an environment that is suited to thrive at these warmer temperatures.” Natali also says that many areas are experiencing “Tundra browning”: the higher temperatures lead surface water to evaporate into the atmosphere, causing plants to die off. Other areas are experiencing sudden flooding due to the ground collapsing. “It’s not happening in 2100 or 2050, it’s now”, says Natali. “You hear people say ‘we used to pick blueberries over there’, and you look over there and it’s a wetland.”


Natali doesn’t want to end the conversation on a downer. There is a lot we can do, she says. The fate of the Arctic is not a foregone conclusion: “The actions taken by the international community will have a substantial impact on just how much carbon will be released and how much of the permafrost will thaw. We need to keep as much of the permafrost as we can frozen. And we do have some control of that.” Our emissions cannot remain “business as usual”. The Arctic depends on it. And we depend on the Arctic.




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