As temperatures continue to rise in the Arctic, thawing frozen land that scientists have already said contributes to greenhouse gas emissions could also spread nuclear waste and radiation, as well as unknown viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to new research released Thursday.
A report published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change noted that the permanently frozen land, called permafrost, thawing in the Arctic at increasing rates due to global warming could potentially release radioactive waste from Cold War-era weapons production and damage from mining.
The study’s researchers noted that between 1955 to 1990, the Soviet Union conducted a total of 130 nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere and near the ocean’s surface off the coast of northwest Russia.
While the Russian government said it has since launched a cleanup of the area, the authors of Thursday’s study found that high levels of radioactive substances have recently been detected in the area.
Additionally, the authors said that deep permafrost in the Arctic, which is roughly a million years old, contains bacteria that, because frozen, has not been exposed to modern antibiotics on Earth.
The report noted that the potential thawing of the permafrost could melt into oceans and eventually create antibiotic-resistant strains of existing bacteria.
One of the report’s authors, Arwyn Edwards from Wales’ Aberystwyth University, told the BBC that while much of the Arctic still remains unknown, changes in the region’s “climate and ecology will influence every part of the planet as it feeds carbon back to the atmosphere and raises sea levels.”
"This review identifies how other risks can arise from the warming Arctic,” he said. “It has long been a deep-freezer for a range of harmful things, not just greenhouse gases.”
"We need to understand more about the fate of these harmful microbes and pollutants and nuclear materials to properly understand the threats they may pose,” he argued.
Edwards called on world leaders to take "demonstrable action" at next month’s 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, noting that a starting point could be investing in more research on the potential impacts of thawing permafrost.
The report comes after a German study released in August found that a heatwave in 2020 revealed a source of methane emissions “potentially in much higher amounts” from rock formations thawing in the Arctic permafrost that could be “much more dangerous” than previously thought.