That could release some worrisome things, says climate scientist Kimberley Miner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who wasn’t involved in the study. In 2021, Miner and her colleagues warned that the thawing of Arctic permafrost could release antibiotic-resistant bacteria, viruses and radioactive waste from nuclear-testing programs into the environment.
The new findings are probably conservative, Langer says, partly because the analysis didn’t consider that infrastructure itself can warm the ground. What’s more, even if it doesn’t fully thaw, “warming of the permafrost causes quite a bit of problem,” says civil engineer Guy Doré of Université Laval in Quebec City, who wasn’t involved in the study. Permafrost that warms from –5° C to –2° C can lose half of its load-bearing capacity, he says, destabilizing infrastructure.
Today, no international regulations mandate industries in the Arctic to document the substances they use and store, or what happens to them. Without that information, Langer says, it’ll be difficult to assess and manage the growing risk of contamination.
He plans to visit decades-old oil drilling facilities in Canada to study how the changing permafrost has affected the containment of drilling fluids. “That’s the next step,” he says, “to understand better how [industrial contaminants] spread into the landscape.”
Anything is possible, but of all the things to worry about, the fallout from nuclear tests seems pretty low on the list. There is, after all, Nevada which has had it for decades now, and lots of other places around the globe, so the minor amount that might have settled in permafrost areas seems trivial. As for antibiotic resistant bacteria, my understanding is that at first penicillin (or others) worked on most everything, but as it was overused bacteria evolved to be able to “avoid” the use of antibiotics. How would quite older bacteria fit into this category? Viruses have been around since forever, and they’re going to be around forever, so…
Feel free to explain to me why I’m not worried but should be.
Exactly what I was thinking. If the bacteria have been frozen since before antibiotics were used, how could they be antibiotic resistant?
Never let a bit of common sense interfere with another media hysteria parade.
Radioactive materials have been sequestered in the Arctic since the beginning of nuclear testing in the 1950s132,133,134, with additional inputs from accidents, weapons tests and intentional dumping of nuclear waste that have since increased point-source concentrations23,24,135.
Between 1955 and 1990, the Soviet Union conducted 130 nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere and near-surface ocean of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago135,136. The tests used 224 separate explosive devices, releasing ~265 megatons of nuclear energy135. In the nearby Kara and Barents seas, over 100 decommissioned nuclear submarines were also scuttled136,137,138. Dispersed contamination from these radionuclides persists in multiple substrates across the region. For example, sediments in the bottom of the Chernaya Inlet of the Kara Sea contain 2,500–11,000 Bq kg−1 of plutonium, 3–4 orders of magnitude larger than the background level (0–3 Bq kg−1)139. The neighbouring Severny Island ice sheet also yielded high levels of radioactive caesium (137Cs; 450–650 Bq kg−1) in boreholes and snow pits140. These concentrations were further reflected in the vegetation (610 Bq kg−1) and soils (450 Bq kg−1) below the glacier140. The recent implementation of a strategic clean-up plan has led to the disposal of submarines and spent nuclear fuel, although sunken ships excluded from the plan account for ~8,860 TBq of radiation138. These remaining vessels may add to ongoing problems as radionucleotides in sediment mobilize into the greater environment141,142.
Camp Century (~240 km from Thule, Greenland) was a nuclear-powered Arctic research centre carved into the ice cap >9 m below the ice surface in 1959 by the US Army Corps of Engineers24. The research and laboratory facilities were powered by a portable nuclear reactor (Alco PM-2A) and produced considerable nuclear and diesel waste143. When the site was decommissioned in 1967, all wastes were left below the accumulating ice, which is now rapidly receding (~268 tons of ice loss per year)23,24,42. These combined wastes have an estimated bulk radioactivity of ~1.2 × 109 Bq, representing ~9.2 × 103 tons of physical waste, 2.0 × 105 l of diesel fuel and PCBs, and 2.4 × 107 l of sewage41,144. While there still remains a small window of opportunity for removal, ongoing meltwater infiltration could disperse materials widely145 (Fig. 1).
Near Camp Century, the 1968 Thule bomber crash scattered >4.6 × 1012 Bq of uranium and plutonium on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet41. Though it is not entirely clear how far the bomb debris dispersed, bioturbation, sediment leaching and hydrological transport are expected to increase the radioactivity’s range144,145.
Taken together, nuclear contamination in the Arctic may be considerable and mobile. Research from the 1990s into the transport and uptake of 137Cs suggested that harmful levels of radioactivity may be present until the year 2500 (ref. 85), but critical analysis has not incorporated recent changes from climate warming.
Deep permafrost (>3 m) is one of the few environments on Earth that has not been exposed to modern antibiotics, yet antibiotic-resistant bacteria are prevalent in these soil horizons179,180,181. In Siberia, over 100 diverse microorganisms, including Firmicutes, Arthrobacter and Bacteroidetes, were determined to be resistant to aminoglycoside, tetracycline and chloramphenicol antibiotics181 (Table 1). These antibiotic-resistant bacteria were identified in permafrost dated 15–290 ka, with species even more abundant in active layers in older, deeper permafrost181,182. Subsequently, concerns have been raised about the potential for the exchange of genetic material between antibiotic-resistant permafrost microorganisms and contemporary bacteria to create new antibiotic-resistant strains183. To date, bacteria resistant to chloramphenicol, streptomycin, kanamycin, gentamicin, tetracycline, spectinomycin and neomycin have been recovered from permafrost soils18,184.
I will just dump (if you want to consider it that) my analysis here because as much as I try, I cannot let certain things go.
In a not TL;DR format. To wit: All very entertaining and not without a necessary nod to science, but clearly has more in common with a 1950’s sci-fi movie script than with the way these things have played out over the millennia.