Unspoken Carbon Time Machine Threatens to Create a Climate Change Crisis

This photo demonstrates the aftermath of permafrost thaw. The house in the photo once stood solidly on permafrost, but after only two years of extreme temperatures, it collapsed and fell over 10 meters (32.81 ft).

I come from officially the world's coldest city with over 10,000 population - Yakutsk. Sometimes, in winter, the temperatures here drop below −60°C (−76 °F). Located in East Siberia, Yakutsk is the capital city of the Sakha Yakutia Republic, which would be the world’s eighth-largest country if it were independent, according to The New York Times.

Yakutsk is a city entirely built on permafrost: ground that has been permanently frozen. In some regions of Yakutia, it has been this way since the Pleistocene era. Permafrost is one of the largest carbon reservoirs in the world; for tens of thousands of years, it has acted like a freezer and stored a great amount of plant remains, fossils of ancient animals, and even viruses.

A photo of permafrost, provided by Professor Vladimir Romanovsky of Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Image Credit: provided by Vladimir Romanovsky (USA) with consent.

A photo of permafrost.

As our planet warms, the earth’s permafrost has begun to thaw. When permafrost degrades, ancient biomass trapped deep inside the soil rots and decomposes, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases. According to the book The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, “permafrost contains up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, considerably more than is currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws, some of it will evaporate as methane, which is, depending on how you measure, at least several dozen times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide” (Wallace-Wells). Due to the fact that permafrost contains more than twice the carbon found in the atmosphere, thawing permafrost will and already has an enormous impact on climate change as it further accelerates global warming via greenhouse gas emissions.

When permafrost thaws, it releases greenhouse gases that fuel more warming. As a result, global warming leads to higher rates of flooding, heat waves, ocean acidification, troubles with food production, and many other unfavorable consequences. It is crucial to take action in reducing the thawing of permafrost in order to avoid the further growth of global temperatures. As global temperatures rise, the losses it causes become more catastrophic.

According to The Uninhabitable Earth, “150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5-degree warmer one…[150 million] is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind, World War II” (Wallace-Wells).

Furthermore, thawing permafrost will not only affect the population globally, but locally as well. Some effects of permafrost thaw can be seen even today when looking at the falling infrastructure in Northern settlements. Permafrost threatens to damage the infrastructure and harm the lives of 5 million people, who live in permafrost areas, in the upcoming years.

A photo of the house that collapsed due to permafrost thaw. The photo was provided by Professor Vladimir Romanovsky of Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Image credit: Provided by Vladimir Romanovsky (USA) with consent.

A photo of the house that collapsed due to permafrost thaw.

In an effort to study this occurrence, I flew to Alaska and interviewed scientists Vladimir E. Romanovsky and Alexander L. Kholodov of the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I contacted Scientist Nikita Zimov to learn more about his Pleistocene Park, a project aimed at mitigating climate change by restoring highly productive grazing ecosystems in the Arctic. Additionally, I visited the other three corners of the USA: Maine, Florida, and California to interview locals about the effects of climate change on their lives.

Currently, I am creating a documentary “Unspoken Carbon Time Machine” to spread awareness about the importance of permafrost and am proposing solutions to help our planet, based on the research I’ve done in recent years. I anticipate the data and statistics I have collected from this trip and past research will heighten future articles regarding climate change and related issues such as permafrost thaw, wildfires, and extreme weather.

In summary, through my various initiatives, I hope to inspire youth from around the world to a) spread awareness b) build collective action, and c) drive systemic change. Together, we can prevent this carbon time machine together, and ensure sustainability for the world for generations to come. 

Me and Alexander L. Kholodov, Research Assistant Professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, in the process of studying permafrost.
Image credit: photo taken by me in Alaska, June, 2022.

Me and Alexander L. Kholodov, Research Assistant Professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, in the process of studying permafrost.

Works Cited

AMAP, 2011. Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Climate Change and the Cryosphere. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway. xii + 538pp.

Aristide, A. (2021, September 28). Mapping the People, Places, and Problems of Permafrost Thaw. Eos. https://eos.org/articles/mapping-the-people-places-and-problems-of-perm… 

MacFarquhar, N., & Ducke, E. (2020, September 14). Russian Land of Permafrost and Mammoths Is Thawing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/04/world/europe/russia-siberia-yakutia-… 

Resnick, B. (2019, November 15). Melting permafrost in the Arctic is unlocking diseases and warping the landscape. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2017/9/6/16062174/permafrost-melting 

Welch, C. (2021, May 3). Permafrost may thaw far faster than expected and accelerate climate change. Environment. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/news-arctic-perm… 

Wallace-Wells, D. (2020). The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Crown.


United States of America