Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Not your usual tune: translating spider's silk into sound could…

Oceans

Millions of oysters have been rescued from the struggling shellfish…

Climate

History is littered with examples of fungi helping to digest…

Geophoto

The streets of Philadelphia are home to a small and forgotten…

Geophoto

When photographer Matthew Maran first snapped a fox he had…

Wildlife

Coloradans have voted to reintroduce grey wolves to the state

Energy

Covid-19 provides an opportunity to re-assess the supply chains of…

Geophoto

Andrea DiCenzo is a photojournalist, who has covered conflicts for…

Oceans

Field observations of corals around the world reveal that not…

Climate

The Great Plains of the USA are once again getting…

Climate

Attempts to build a digital twin of the Earth could…

Oceans

Food systems will need to change as the global population…

Wildlife

Zoos do a lot more than welcome excited visitors; closures…

Oceans

 BluHope is back with a day of webinars to promote…

Wildlife

WildEast, a grassroots community initiative, is encouraging volunteers to commit…

Wildlife

With growing global awareness of the risks of hunting and…

Climate

Researchers have identified the extent of microplastic contamination throughout the…

Wildlife

The Thames Estuary has long been home to heavy industry,…