Newsweek Features Permafrost Video
June 4, 2016
My 2013 video on permafrost was included with a Newsweek piece on the issue.
These videos get watched by, and help educate, the media gatekeepers. That’s the key to changing the conversation.
Discussions of global warming often center on the release of greenhouse gases like carbon into the atmosphere, mostly from burning fossil fuels. There’s talk of “leaving it in the ground,” locking potential gases up in benign obscurity as untapped coal or oil reserves, but rarely does one see carbon slowly and steadily unlocking itself. In the Goldstream Valley in central Alaska, you can see it almost everywhere you look.
But in one spot, that carbon is still in suspended animation. In the mid-1960s, as Cold War fears ramped up, the U.S. Army bored a tunnel directly through a hillside down the road from Wetzen’s house, about 10 miles north of downtown Fairbanks, to research whether permafrost might be a good place to hide heavy weapons. Now the tunnel, kept cold year-round, is a treasure chest of research material for scientists who come to scrape off bits of ice or grass from 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. Mammoth femurs and tusks jut out from its walls, and in one place, a tuft of grass, first buried some 20,000 years ago, dangles in the dark, still green with chlorophyll that never had a chance to degrade. There is the frozen carbon, locked in place. Should this tunnel warm, that grass and all the rest would begin the rapid cycle of decomposition, releasing all its stores of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s already happening above ground.
Worse yet, when permafrost thaws beneath a lake, where oxygen is scarce, the microbes decompose the organic material and convert it to methane gas instead of carbon dioxide. Methane is an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas, with up to 25 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
None of the permafrost thawing beneath millions of lakes across the Arctic is accounted for in global predictions about climate change—it’s “a gap in our climate modeling,” says Katey Walter Anthony, a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher who studies permafrost thaw across Alaska and Siberia. She’s become famous in certain circles for finding methane bubbling up beneath the ice in frozen-over permafrost lakes, cutting a hole ice-fishing style and lighting the highly flammable gas on fire, sending up a column of flames 10 feet high. But most of the time, Walter Anthony is flying between dozens of Arctic lakes, lowering tiny handmade rigs fashioned from plastic valves, fishing line and 2-liter Coke bottles into holes cut into the ice, to capture and count how much methane is bubbling up.
Below, more from Richard Alley on Undersea Methane: